4406 entries. 94 themes. Last updated December 26, 2016.

8,000 BCE to 1,000 BCE Timeline


In Mesopotamia Neolithic Tokens are Developed for "Concrete" Counting Circa 8,000 BCE

According to the theory about the origins of counting and writing developed by Denise Schmandt-Besserat, around 8000 BCE the Palaeolithic notched tallies representing the simplest form of counting — in one-to-one correspondence — were superseded by Neolithic clay tokens in various geometric forms suited for concrete counting invented in Mesopotamia. The significance of these tokens "as an operational device in Mesopotamian bureaucracy," was first grasped by archaeologist Pierre Amiet, teacher of Schand-Besserat in 1972 with respect to tokens found in Nuzi, an ancient Mesopotamian city southwest of Kirkuk in modern Al Ta'amim Governorate of Iraq, located near the Tigris river. (Schmandt-Besserat, Before Writing I [1992] ix.) 

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The Earliest Known Fermented Beverage Circa 7,000 BCE

Chemical analyses of ancient organic compounds absorbed into pottery jars from the early Neolithic village of Jiahu in Henan province in China show that a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit (hawthorn fruit and/or grape) was being produced about 7000 BCE. The rice was probably prepared for fermentation by mastication or malting,

"This prehistoric drink paved the way for unique cereal beverages of the proto-historic second millennium B.C., remarkably preserved as liquids inside sealed bronze vessels of the Shang and Western Zhou Dynasties. These findings provide direct evidence for fermented beverages in ancient Chinese culture, which were of considerable social, religious, and medical significance, and help elucidate their earliest descriptions in the Shang Dynasty oracle inscriptions.

"Throughout history and around the world, human societies at every level of complexity discovered how to make fermented beverages from sugar sources available in their local habitats. This nearly universal phenomenon of fermented beverage production is explained by ethanol's combined analgesic, disinfectant, and profound mind-altering effects. Moreover, fermentation helps to preserve and enhance the nutritional value of foods and beverages. Because of their perceived pharmacological, nutritional, and sensory benefits, fermented beverages thus have played key roles in the development of human culture and technology, contributing to the advance and intensification of agriculture, horticulture, and food-processing techniques. Among all strata of society, they have marked major life events, from birth to death, as well as victories, auspicious events, and harvests, etc. Rulers and “upper class” individuals with leisure and resources particularly were drawn to feasting on a grand scale, which often featured special fermented beverages served in and drunk from special vessels. In their most developed form, such celebrations were formalized into secular or religious ceremonies for the society at large.

"How does ancient China, one of the primal centers for the rise of human civilization, fit into this picture of fermented beverage production, conspicuous consumption, and celebratory and ritual activities that are so well documented archaeologically, historically, and ethnographically elsewhere? Based on the oracle inscriptions from the late Shang Dynasty [circa (ca.) 1200–1046 before Christ (B.C.)], the earliest texts from China, at least three beverages were distinguished: chang (an herbal wine), li (probably a sweet, low-alcoholic rice or millet beverage), and jiu (a fully fermented and filtered rice or millet beverage or “wine,” with an alcoholic content of probably 10–15% by weight). According to inscriptions, the Shang palace administration included officials who made the beverages, which sometimes were inspected by the king. Fermented beverages and other foods were offered as sacrifices to royal ancestors in various forms of bronze vessels, likely accompanied by elite feasting. Later documents, incorporating traditions from the Zhou period (ca. 1046–221 B.C.), describe another two beverages: luo (likely made from a fruit) and lao (an unfiltered, fermented rice or millet beverage or the unfermented wort).  

"A much earlier history for fermented beverages in China has long been hypothesized based on the similar shapes and styles of Neolithic pottery vessels to the magnificent Shang Dynasty bronze vessels, which were used to present, store, serve, drink, and ritually present fermented beverages during that period. By using a combined chemical, archaeobotanical, and archaeological approach, we present evidence here that ancient Chinese fermented beverage production does indeed extend back nearly nine millennia. Moreover, our analyses of unique liquid samples from tightly lidded bronze vessels, dated to the Shang/Western Zhou Dynasties (ca. 1250–1000 B.C.), reveal that refinements in beverage production took place over the ensuing 5,000 years, including the development of a special saccharification (amylolysis) fermentation system in which fungi break down the polysaccharides in rice and millet" (Patrick E. McGovern, Juzhong Zhang, et al, "Fermented beverages of pre-and proto-historic China," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Published online before print December 8, 2004, 101, no. 51, December 21, 2004, 17593-17598.)

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In China, Possibly the Earliest Attempt at Writing Circa 6,600 BCE

In April 2003 Dr. Garman Harbottle of the Brookaven National Laboratory in Upton,  New York, and a team of archaeologists at the University of Science and Technology of China, in Hefei, Anhui province, announced that signs carved into what appeared to be 8600 year-old-tortoise shells may be the earliest written words.

Other authorities urge caution regarding the dating of this material, and question whether it is actually written language. The symbols may have been recorded in the late Stone Age or Neolithic Age. The symbols also bear similarities to the oracle bone script used thousands of years later during the Shang dynastry, but it is unclear that these symbols were part of an actual writing system. The BBC reported:

"The archaeologists have identified 11 separate symbols inscribed on the tortoise shells.

"The shells were found buried with human remains in 24 Neolithic graves unearthed at Jiahu in Henan province, Western China.

"The site has been radiocarbon dated to between 6,600-6200 BC" (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2956925.stm, accessed 07-11-2009).

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A Wallpainting that Could be a Landscape or a Map Circa 6,200 BCE

A  wallpainting, located in Catal Hoyuk, that might be the earliest landscape painting yet discovered, or a map. (View Larger)

In 1961 Catal Huyuk, or Çatalhöyük, a very large Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlement in southern Anatolia (now Turkey) of which the lowest layers date from around 7500 BCE, was discovered.  It is the largest and best preserved Neolithic site found to date.

A wall painting radio carbon dated to approximately 6200 BCE, found in 1963 at this site by archaeologist James Mellaart, may be the earliest landscape painting known, or it may be a map.

"It appears to represent the town itself with eighty rectangular buildings of varying sizes clustered in a terraced town landscape. Mellaart noted the similarity of the representation of the houses to the actual excavated structures found at the site, that is, rows of houses built one beside the other with no space between them. The wall painting shows an active double-peaked volcano rising over the town, likely to be the 3,200 m stratovolcano Mount Hasan, which is visible from Catal Huyuk. Lava is depicted flowing down its slopes and exploding in the air above the town. A cloud of ash and smoke completes the scene" (Rochberg, "The Expression of Terrestrial and Celestial Order in Ancient Mesopotamia," IN: Talbert (ed) Ancient Perspectives: Maps and Their Place in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece & Rome [2012] 10-11).

However, some archaeologists have suggested that the wall painting is more likely a painting of a leopard skin instead of a landscape including a volcano, or a decorative geometric design instead of a map. The painting is preserved in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, Turkey.

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Domestication of the Aurochs, Ancestors of Domestic Cattle Circa 6,000 BCE

Bos primigenius (auroch). (Click on image to view larger.)

Based on image in Van Vuure, C. (2005) Retracing the Aurochs: History Morphology and Ecology of an Extinct Wild Ox. Pensoft Publishers. Sofia-Moscow.  (Click on image to view larger.)


Illustration from Sigismund von Herberstein's book published in 1556 captioned: "I am 'urus', tur in Polish, aurox in German (dunces call me bison) [lit. (the) ignorant (ones) had given me the name (of) Bison"; Latin original: Urus sum, polonis Tur, germanis Aurox: ignari Bisontis nomen dederant. (Click on image to view larger.)

Mounted skeleton of a putative female auroch in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. (Click on image to view larger.)

Domestication of the aurochs (urus, Bos primigenius), a type of large wild cattle which evolved in India about two million years ago, and migrated to Asia, and North Africa, reaching Europe about 250,000 years ago, is thought to have occurred in several parts of the world about 6000 BCE. 

"The aurochs was regarded as a challenging hunting quarry animal, contributing to its extinction. The last recorded aurochs, a female, died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland, and her skull is now the property of the Livrustkammaren ("Royal Armory") museum in Stockholm, Sweden.

"Representations and descriptions of aurochs appear in prehistoric cave paintings, in Julius Caesar's The Gallic War, and as the national symbol of many European countries, states and cities such as Alba-Iulia, Kaunas, Romania, Moldavia, Turka, Mecklenburg, and Uri. The Swiss canton Uri was named after this animal species" (Wikipedia article on Aurochs, accessed 12-25-2011).

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The Earliest Evidence of Cheese-Making in Europe Circa 5,500 BCE – 5,000 BCE

Fragment of clay sieve from central Europe.  Credit: Mélanie Salque. (Click on image to view larger.)

A sketch of a sieve reconstructed from ancient potsherds that may have been used in early cheese-making. Credit: Mélanie Salque. (Click on image to view larger).

Traces of dairy fat in unglazed ceramic strainer fragments about 7000 years old found in Kuyavia, Poland provided the first unequivocal evidence that neolithic humans made cheese. 

"The introduction of dairying was a critical step in early agriculture, with milk products being rapidly adopted as a major component of the diets of prehistoric farmers and pottery-using late hunter-gatherers. The processing of milk, particularly the production of cheese, would have been a critical development because it not only allowed the preservation of milk products in a non-perishable and transportable form, but also it made milk a more digestible commodity for early prehistoric farmers. The finding of abundant milk residues in pottery vessels from seventh millennium sites from north-western Anatolia provided the earliest evidence of milk processing, although the exact practice could not be explicitly defined. Notably, the discovery of potsherds pierced with small holes appear at early Neolithic sites in temperate Europe in the sixth millennium BC and have been interpreted typologically as ‘cheese-strainers’, although a direct association with milk processing has not yet been demonstrated. Organic residues preserved in pottery vessels have provided direct evidence for early milk use in the Neolithic period in the Near East and south-eastern Europe, north Africa, Denmark and the British Isles, based on the δ13C and Δ13C values of the major fatty acids in milk. Here we apply the same approach to investigate the function of sieves/strainer vessels, providing direct chemical evidence for their use in milk processing. The presence of abundant milk fat in these specialized vessels, comparable in form to modern cheese strainers, provides compelling evidence for the vessels having being used to separate fat-rich milk curds from the lactose-containing whey. This new evidence emphasizes the importance of pottery vessels in processing dairy products, particularly in the manufacture of reduced-lactose milk products among lactose-intolerant prehistoric farming communities" (Mélanie Salque, Peter Bogucki, et al, "Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millenium bc in northern Europe," (Nature [2012] doi:10.1038/nature11698, accessed 12-12-2012).

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The Earliest Prehistoric Town in Europe Circa 4,700 BCE – 4,200 BCE

The remains of the settlement made of two-story houses near the town of Provadia. (Click on image to view larger.)

Solnitsata, a prehistoric town unearthed in eastern Bulgaria near the town of Provadia, has been estimated to date between 4,700 and 4,200 B.C. The town walls, 3 meters (6 feet) high and 2 meters (4 ½ feet) thick, are believed to be the earliest and most massive fortifications surviving from prehistoric Europe.

The inhabitants of the town boiled brine from salt springs in kilns, then baked it into bricks and used it for trading. The high value of salt may explain why ancient caches of gold jewellery and ritual objects have been unearthed in the region.

"A collection of 3,000 gold objects found 40 years ago at a necropolis near Varna represented the oldest trove of ancient gold treasure in the world.

" 'At a time when people did not know the wheel and cart, these people hauled huge rocks and built massive walls. Why? What did they hide behind them? The answer was salt,' Vasil Nikolov, a researcher with Bulgaria's National Institute of Archeology, told AFP. 'Salt was an extremely valued commodity in ancient times, as it was both necessary for people's lives and was used as a method of trade and currency starting from the sixth millennium BC up to 600 BC,' he said.

"The 'town', known as Provadia-Solnitsata, was small by modern standards and would have had around 350 inhabitants" (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/bulgaria/9646541/Bulgaria-archaeologists-find-Europes-most-prehistoric-town-Provadia-Solnitsata.html, accessed 11-2-2012).

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The First Settlements in the Paris Basin Circa 4,200 BCE

Balloy, Paris Basin. Plan of the central part of the settlement with long houses of the Villeneuve-Saint-Germain culture superimposed by graves and long barrows of the Cerny culture. (Click on image to view larger.)

The earliest surviving signs of permanent neolithic settlement in the Paris basin, known as the La culture de Cerny, date from approximately 4200 BCE.  Cerny culture is characterized by monumental earth mounds.

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Filed under: Archaeology, Prehistory

The Earliest Known Winery Circa 4,000 BCE

From National Geographic. (View Larger)

Between 2007 and September 2010 archaeologists found the earliest known wine press for stomping grapes, fermentation and storage vessels, drinking cups, and withered grape vines, skins and seeds--the earliest, most reliable evidence of wine production--in the Areni-1 cave near the village of Areni, Armenia.

"The cave has also offered surprising new insights into the origins of modern civilizations, such as evidence of a wine-making enterprise and an array of culturally diverse pottery. Excavations also yielded an extensive array of Copper Age artifacts dating to between 6,200 and 5,900 years ago. The new discoveries within the cave move early bronze-age cultural activity in Armenia back by about 800 years. Additional discoveries at the site include metal knives, seeds from more than 30 types of fruit, remains of dozens of cereal species, rope, cloth, straw, grass, reeds and dried grapes and prunes.

"In January 2011 archaeologists announced the discovery of the earliest known winery, seven months after the world's oldest leather shoe, the Areni-1 shoe, was discovered in the same cave. The winery, which is over six-thousand years old, contains a wine press, fermentation vats, jars, and cups. Archaeologists also found grape seeds and vines of the species Vitis vinifera. Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, commenting on the importance of the find, said, 'The fact that winemaking was already so well developed in 4000 BC suggests that the technology probably goes back much earlier' " (Wikipedia article on Areni, accessed 01-16-2011).

An image of the "wine press" and "fermentation vat" found at Areni was illustrated in the following article in National Geographic Newshttp://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/01/110111-oldest-wine-press-making-winery-armenia-science-ucla/, accessed 01-16-2011)

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The Earliest Precursors to Writing in Egypt are Rock Drawings Circa 3,750 BCE

"Rock drawings constitute the earliest of the presursors to writing in Egypt. Drawings date from the earliest habitation of the Nile valley to the Islamic period, but the most salient early examples date to the Naqada I period (ca. 3750-3500 BC). They are located in the Eastern Desert along principle routes to the Red Sea (e.g., the Wadi Hammamat), and in the Western Desert along important land routes (e.g., the Theban Desert Road). Among the more popular motifs displayed are boats, animals and humanoid figures with feathers. Their composition is seemingly narrative, but their meaning is difficult to ascertain.

"There are rare examples of rock art of the late Predynastic period that can be interpreted. The 1936-1938 expeditions of Hans Winkler yielded a serekh (rectangular enclosure with the king's Horus name and a niched facade, surmounted by a falcon) of King Narmer (before ca. 3150 BC) at the site of Wadi el-Qash, in the Eatern Desert. This inscription is composed of an abbreviated version of King Narmer's name (only the nar-catfish is written; the mr-chisel has been left out) within a serekh, and constitue the only definite example of writing from this corpus at such an early date in Egyptian history.

"In general, during the Predynastic period the distinction between purely pictorial rock drawings and hieroglyphic writing is very hard to make. Although the motifs foreshadow those of subsequent periods of Egyptian history, aside from the example at Wadi-el-Qash there are no clear attempts at writing during the Predynastic period presently known to scholars. Instead, these spectacular scenes, carved into living rock, remain frustratingly ambiguous" (Elise V. Macarthur, "The Concept and Development of the Egyptian Writing System," IN: Woods (ed), Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 116-117, illustrating the drawing with serekh of King Narmer).

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One Theory of the Origins of Egyptian Hieroglyphs Circa 3,600 BCE – 3,200 BCE

One theory  of the origin of writing in Egypt proposes that Egyptian hieroglyphs evolved from symbols drawn on pottery produced by the Gerzeh culture (Gerzean, Girza, Jirzah), which was excavated from a predynastic Egyptian cemetery located along the west bank of the Nile and today named after al-Girza, the nearby present day town in Egypt.

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Horse Domestication Revolutionizes Transportation, Communication, and Warfare Circa 3,500 BCE

The Botai culture originated from the Akmola province of Kazakhstan, highlighted in green. (View Larger)

Horse domestication revolutionized transportation, accelerated communication, and transformed warfare in prehistory.  Yet the identification of early domestication processes has been problematic.

In a paper published in the journal Science on March 6, 2009 archaeologist Alan K. Outram and seven co-authors published "three independent lines of evidence demonstrating domestication in the Eneolithic Botai Culture of Kazakhstan, dating to about 3500 B.C.E. Metrical analysis of horse metacarpals shows that Botai horses resemble Bronze Age domestic horses rather than Paleolithic wild horses from the same region. Pathological characteristics indicate that some Botai horses were bridled, perhaps ridden. Organic residue analysis, using δ13C and δD values of fatty acids, reveals processing of mare's milk and carcass products in ceramics, indicating a developed domestic economy encompassing secondary products" (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/323/5919/1332, accessed 03-06-2009).

Prior to discovery of this evidence horse domestication was thought to have occurred around 2500 BCE.

♦ Before horses were domesticated it appears that prehistoric people mainly killed horses for food.  One of the most celebrated collections of horse and reindeer bones was found beneath the precipice at the paleolithic site of Solutré in France.  Though prehistoric people primarily hunted the reindeer for food and other necessities of life, an explanation for the immense deposit of bones at Solutré is that prehistoric people stampeded reindeer and horses over the cliff as a means of killing them.

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The Oldest Known Well-Preserved Leather Shoe Circa 3,500 BCE

The Areni-1 shoe. (View Larger)

The Areni-1 shoe, a 5,500-year-old leather shoe, found in 2008 in excellent condition in the "Areni-1" cave located in the Vayots Dzor province of Armenia, is a one-piece leather-hide shoe that has been dated as a few hundred years older than the one found on Ötzi the Iceman, making it the oldest piece of leather footwear in the world known to contemporary researchers.

"Much older footwear, 10,000 year old sandals made of sagebrush fiber, has been discovered in the United States at Fort Rock Cave in Oregon. By evidence found to date, the use of shoes arose between 40,000 and 26,000 years ago. The discovery was made by a team led by archaeologist Ron Pinhasi of University College Cork in Ireland.

"The shoe was found in near-perfect condition due to the cool and dry conditions in the cave and a thick layer of sheep dung which acted as a solid seal. Large storage containers were found in the same cave, many of which held well-preserved wheat, barley, and apricots, as well as other edible plants. The shoe contained grass and the archaeologists were uncertain as to whether this was because the grass was used as insulation to keep the foot warm, or used to preserve the shape of the shoe while not being worn. Lead archaeologist Ron Pinhasi could not determine whether the shoe belonged to a man or a woman. While small, approximately a woman's U.S. and Canada size 7, European size 37, or UK size 6, he stated that "the shoe could well have fitted a man from that era". The shoe laces were preserved as well.

"Major similarities exist between the manufacturing technique and style of one-piece leather-hide shoes discovered across Europe and the one reported from Areni-1 Cave, suggesting that shoes of this type were worn for millennia across a large and environmentally diverse geographic region. According to Pinhasi, the Areni-1 shoe is similar to the Irish pampooties, a shoe style worn in the Aran Islands up to the 1950s. The shoes are very similar to the traditional shoes of the Balkans, still seen today in festivals, known as Opanci (Opanke)." (Wikipedia article on Areni-1 shoe, accessed 01-16-2011).

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The Earliest Images of a Wheeled Vehicle Circa 3,500 BCE – 3,350 BCE

Bronocice clay pot showing wheeled cart. (Click on image to view larger.)

Drawing showing detail of bronocice clay pot images including wheeled cart. (Click on image to view larger).

Drawing of wheeled cart. (Click on image to view larger.)

Evidence of wheeled vehicles appears from the mid 4th millennium BCE in Mesopotamia, the Northern Caucasus (Maykop culture) and Central Europe, so the question of which culture originally invented the wheeled vehicle remains unresolved.

The earliest well-dated image of a wheeled vehicle, radiocabon dated to 3500-3350 BCE, is on the Bronocice pot, a Funnelbeaker culture ceramic vase discovered in 1976 during the archaeological excavation of a large Neolithic settlement in Bronocice by the Nidzica River, circa 50 km north-east of Kraków.  The vase is preserved in the Archaeological Museum in Kraków.

Images on the Bronice pot include five rudimentary representations of what seems to be a wagon. They represent a vehicle with a shaft for a draught animal, and four wheels. The lines connecting them probably represent axles. The circle in the middle possibly symbolizes a container for harvest. These images suggest the existence of wagons in Central Europe as early as in the 4th millennium BCE. The wagons were presumably drawn by aurochs, ancestors of domestic cattle, whose remains were found with the pot. Their horns were worn out as if tied with a rope, possibly a result of using a kind of yoke,

Other images on the pot include a tree, a river and what may be fields intersected by roads or ditches or the layout of a village.

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The Earliest Known Egyptian Writing Circa 3,320 BCE – 3,150 BCE

Ivory tags from tomb U-j.

Tomb U-j at Abydos. The Burial chamber is the broad room at the rear (southwest end) of the tomb.

Plan of tomb U-J.

Bone and ivory tags, pottery vessels, and clay seal impressions bearing hieroglyphs unearthed at Abydos, one of the most ancient cities of Upper Egypt, 300 miles south of Cairo, have been dated between 3320 and 3150 BCE, making them the oldest known examples of Egyptian writing.

The tags, each measuring 2 by 1 1/2 centimeters and containing between one and four glyphs, were discovered in the late 20th century in Tomb U-j of Umm el Qu'ab, the necropolis of the Predynastic and Early Dynastic kings by excavators from the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo led by Günter Dreyer. Tomb U-j may hold the remains of predynastic ruler Scorpion I (Serket I). The discoveries in Tomb U-j were first published by Dreyer, Ulrich Hartung, and Frauke Pupenmeier in Umm el-Qaab. Volume 1: Das prädynastische Königsgrab U-j und seine frühen Schriftzeugnisse (1998).

"Tomb U-j is best known for three distinctive forms of administrative record keeping in the form of ink-inscribed vessels, sealings, and tags. The size of the tomb, its contents, and the amount of labor its construction and assemblage would have required has led many scholars to propose that this tomb belonged to a proto-ruler who reigned over a sizable territory by the Naqada III period. . . .

"The written evidence from Tomb U-j, in particular the tags, probably denotes quantities of good, and localities in Egypt and beyond. The Egyptian writing system had already undergone a number of important developments by the time of Tomb U-j, which have not yet been recovered, or have not survived to modern times. Linguistic terminology makes it psosible to identify the various units of language that helped to transform communication in early Egypt from merely pictorial expression to speech writing, which is important in identifying the nature of early graphic material:

"1) Logograms: symbols representing specific words

"2) Phonograms: symbols representing specific sounds

"3) Determinatives: symbols used for classifying words

"Moreover, writing on the tags shows that the Egyptian writing system had adopted the rebus principle, which broadened the meaning of symbols to include their homophones—words with the same sound but different definitions. . . ." (Elise V. Macarthur, "The Concept and Development of the Egyptian Writing System" IN: Woods (ed), Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Middle East and Beyond [2010] 120; the book illustrates many of the objects from Tomb U-j; see also 138-143).

"Prior to the proper scientific excavation of Tomb U-j and its publication in 1998, the earliest clear instances of Egyptian writing dated back to the late Dynasty o (ca. 3200-3100 BC), a few centuries later than in southern Mesopotamia. It had long been known that later fourth-millenium Egypt witnessed sustained cultural contract with southern Mesopotamia and Susiana, tokens of which are found in elements of foeign iconography on Egyptian prestige objects, the adoption of the cylinder seal, and niched brick architecture. This led to the —always controversial— hypothesis that Egyptian writing may have originated as a result of cultural infleunce from Mesopotamia, whether through general awareness that writing was present elsewhere, or possibly through some actual knowledge of the workings of the Mesopotamian system. The distinctively indigenous nature of the Egyptian repertoire of signs was interpreted as a case of cultural adaptation of a foreign technology to local purposes. The hypothesis of a Mesopotamian influence on the emergence of Egyptian writing was at times embedded into a broader frame arguing that the original invention of writing, conceived of as a dramatic cultural achievement, would have occurred only once in human history, subsequently to spread elsewhere.

"As to the latter issue, the decipherment of Mayan glyphs and other New World scripts, and the realization that these represent actual writing rather than pictography, now proves otherwise. Simultaneously, a more refined understanding of the working of early writing in general demonstrates that writing may develop gradually, rather than dramatically, a good case in point being, pr-ecisely, the stage witnessed by Tomb U-j" (Andréas Stauder, "The Earliest Egyptian Writing" IN: Woods (ed) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 142).

http://archive.archaeology.org/9903/newsbriefs/egypt.html, accessed 01-13-2013).

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The First Prehistoric Human Ever Found with his Everyday Clothing and Equipment Circa 3,300 BCE

Model of Ötzi the Iceman in exhibit at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.

Mummified corpse of Ötzi the Iceman.

The most important item of the Iceman’s equipment is his copper-bladed axe.

The two separate leggings, which the Iceman was still wearing when he was discovered, are made of several pieces of domestic goat hide carefully cross-stitched together with animal sinew.

In September 1991 Ötzi, also called Ötzi the Iceman, the Similaun Man, the Man from Hauslabjoch, Homo tyrolensis, and the Hauslabjoch mummy, was discovered  in the Ötztal Alps near the Mt. Similaun and Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy. Radiocarbon tests consistently dated the body and associated objects within a range of 3365-2940 BCE. Because the body was preserved in ice for over 5000 years it had only partially deteriorated when it was discovered. 

"Anthropologists are particularly interested in the items found with him, which constitute a unique time-capsule of the stuff of everyday life, may of them made of organic materials that were preserved by the cold and ice. An astonishing variety of woods, and a range of very sophsticated tecyniques of work with leather and grasses can be seen in the collection of seventy objects that have added a new dimension to our knowledge of the period.

The axe, 60 cm (24 in) in length, has a head of copper that was bound to the yew-wood handle with leather thongs. The bow, of yew wood, was almost 180 cm. (6 ft) long. One side is flat, the other rounded. Its odour at room temperature suggests it was smeared with blood or fat to keep it pliable. A quiver of deerskin contained fourteen arrows, only two of which were ready for use. Their 75 cm (30 in) shafts, made of two pieces, were of dogwood and viburnum wood, and had points of stone or bone fixed to them by pitch. The two finished arrows had double-side points of flint and triple feathering whose placement meant the missiles would spin in flight and indicates an advanced ballistic design. The quiver also contained an untreated sinew (possibly for use as a bowstring), a ball of fibrous cord ,bone or antler spines tied togehter with grass, and various objects of flint and bone, together with pitch - it may ahve constituted some kind of repair kit.

"The dagger or knife has a sharp flint blade, only about 4 cm (1.5 in) long set into an 8 cm (3 in) ash-wood handle. Polish on the blade indicates that it was used to cut grass. A woven grass sheath was also found. What was orignally assumed to be a stone-pointed fire-striker was found to be a thick 'pencil' of linden wood with a central spine of bone, probably used for retouching and sharpening flint objects. A U-shaped stick of hazel and two cross-boards of larch are thought to be the frame of a backpack that may have contained some animal bones and residues of the skin of chamois and other small animals, found nearby: blood residues from chamois, ibex and deer have been found on some of the implements" (Paul G. Hahn (ed) 100 Great Archaeological Discoveries [1995] 85).

Ötzi's body and belongings are preserved in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, South Tyrol, Italy.

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Cuneiform Writing in Mesopotomia Begins at Uruk in Association with the Development of Urban Life Circa 3,200 BCE – 2,900 BCE

Cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia began as a system of pictographs written with styli on clay tablets. The earliest cuneiform tablets. written in proto-cuneiform, were discovered in excavations of periods IV-III of the Eanna (Eana) district of Uruk (Warka) an ancient city of Sumer and later Babylonia, situated east of the present bed of the Euphrates river, some 30 km east of modern As-Samawah, Al-Muthannā, Iraq.

Between 1928 and 1976 approximately 5000 proto-cuneiform tablets were excavated at Uruk by the German Archaeological Institute.

"But these are not the only witnesses to the archaic script. Proto-cuneiform texts corresponding to the Uruk III [circa 3100 BCE] tablets have been found in the northern Babylonian sites of Jemdet Nasr, Khafajah, and Tell Uquair, testifying to the fact that the new technology spread quickly throughout Babylonia soon after its invention (in ancient Iran proto-cuneiform possibly inspired the proto-Elamite script ca. 3100 BC.) Illicit excavations since the 1990s account for several hundred additional texts, which possibly originate from the ancient Babylonian cities of Umma, Adab, and Kish. These texts have the advantage of being generally in better condition than those from Uruk, which, . . . represented discarded rubbish and thus are frequently fragmentary. To date the proto-cuneiform corpus numbers approximately six thousand tablets and fragments" (Christopher Woods, "The Earliest Mespotamian Writing," Chapter 2 of Woods, Teeter, Emberling (eds) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 35-36).

"The formation of an urban society and the innovations that came with it and which occurred for the first time in Uruk – a regional and supraregional centre – had an enormous impact on the entire Near-Eastern world. Very quickly, impressive temples and palaces sprung up, overshadowing the early grand architectural monuments in Uruk’s centre. A striking feature of these new buildings was their form, the ziggurat or stepped tower, which went on to become a defining element of ancient Near-Eastern temple architecture. The use of writing as an administrative tool also laid the foundations for science and learning in the ancient Near East. Very early on, lexical lists of terms and objects began to emerge – the first of their kind – and these were passed down the generations. Some of these records contain lists of city officials and specialist terms for occupations that provide an insight into a highly stratified society. Other records bear lexical lists of everyday objects, providing an insight into material culture. Particular importance was given very early on to observing the stars as a means to read the future. The ancient Babylonian palace of the ruler Sin-Kashid, built in the 2nd millennium BCE, exemplifies Uruk’s role as part of the ancient Near-Eastern empire. The palace served as both the seat of the ruler and as a commercial and administrative centre. It was here that diplomatic correspondence, legal contracts, surety bonds, and various court documents were set in writing. The site also served as a lively trading centre. Deliveries of raw materials were processed into valuable goods that denoted the owner’s status. The palace was also a place where writers were educated. The writers played a vital role in everyday life, as they compiled the correspondence and contractual agreements on behalf of the largely illiterate population" (http://www.uruk-megacity.de/index.php?page_id=6, accessed 01-13-2013).

"Writing emerged in the context of temple bureaucracy in the cities of the southern Iraqi marshes some time in the late fourth millennium BC. A tiny number of accountants used word signs (usually pictograms) and number signs to account for institutional assets — land, labor, animals — and their secondary products. They wrote on refined clay tablets, about the size of a credit card but around 1 cm thick, incising the signs for the objects they were recording with a pointed stylus and impressing the numbers with a cylindrical one. The front surface of the tablet was marked out into boxes, each one containing a single unit of accounting, logically ordered, with the results of calculations (total wages, predicted harvests, and so on) shown on the back. This writing was barely language-specific — it represented concrete nouns, numbers and little else, with only occasional clues to pronunciation and none at all to word order — and was known only to a handful of expert users. Its functionality was as yet so limited that it was used only to keep accounts, or to practice writing the words, numbers, and calculations needed for accountancy" (Robson, "The Clay Tablet Book in Sumer, Assyria, and Babylonia," Elliot & Rose [eds.] A Companion to the History of the Book [2007] 67-68.)

"Indeed that the vast majority of the earliest texts [discovered at Uruk and elsewhere in Mesopotamia] are administrative in nature suggests that the invention of writing was a response to practical social pressures—simply put, writing faciliated complex bureaucracy. It is important to stress in this connection that literature plays no role in the origins of writing in Mesopotomia. Religious texts, historical documents and letters are not included among the archaic text corpus either. Rather, these text genres arise relatively late, beginning in the middle of the third millennium, some seven hundred or more years after the first written evidence" (Woods, op. cit, 34). 

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One of the Earliest Surviving Examples of Narrative Relief Sculpture and Egyptian Hieroglyphs Circa 3,200 BCE

The Narmer Palette, one of the earliest surviving examples of narrative relief sculpture, was found during excavations at Nekhen (Greek: Ἱεράκων πόλις 'city of hawks', Strabo xvii. p. 817, transliterated as Hierakonpolis, Hieraconpolis, or Hieracompolis; Arabic: الكوم الأحمر‎ Al-Kom Al-Aħmar) in the 1890s. It is also one of the earliest surviving records of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Narmer Palette is preserved in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities (Egyptian Museum) Cairo.

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One of the Earliest Surviving Works of Narrative Relief Sculpture, Looted in the Iraq War Circa 3,200 BCE – 3,000 BCE

A side-view of the Warka Vase, before the invasion of Iraq. (View Larger)

The Warka Vase, also called the Uruk Vase, a carved alabaster stone vessel, is one of the earliest surviving works of narrative relief sculpture. It was found in the temple complex of the Sumerian goddess Inanna in the ruins of the ancient city of Uruk, located in the modern Al Muthanna Governorate, in southern Iraq.

"The vase was discovered as a collection of fragments by German Assyriologists in their sixth excavation season at Uruk in 1933/1934. The find was recorded as find number W14873 in the expedition's field book under an entry dated 2 January 1934, which read "Großes Gefäß aus Alabaster, ca. 96 cm hoch mit Flachrelief" ("large container of alabaster, circa 96 cm high with flat-reliefs"). The vase, which showed signs of being repaired in antiquity, stood 3 feet, ¼ inches (1 m) tall. Other sources cite it as having been a slightly taller 106cm, with an upper diameter of 36cm. . . .

"The vase has three registers - or tiers - of carving. The bottom register depicts the vegetation in the Tigris and Euphrates delta, such as the natural reeds and cultivated grain. Above this vegetation is a procession of animals, such as oxen and sheep presented in a strict profile view. The procession continues in the second register with nude males carrying bowls and jars of sacrificial elements, such as fruit and grain. The top register is a full scene, rather than a continuous pattern. In this register, the procession ends at the temple area. Inanna, one of the chief goddesses of Mesopotamia and later known as Ishtar in the Akkadian pantheon, stands, signified by two bundles of reeds behind her. She is being offered a bowl of fruit and grain by a nude figure. A figure in ceremonial clothing - presumably a chieftain/priest - stands nearby with the procession approaching him from behind.

A comparison of the Warka Vase before (left) and after (right) it sustained damage as a result of the invasion of Iraq. (View Larger)

"The Warka Vase was one of the thousands of artifacts which were looted from the National Museum of Iraq during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. In April 2003 it was forcibly wrenched from the case where it was mounted, snapping at the base (the foot of the vase remaining attached to the base of the smashed display case. The vase was later returned during an amnesty to the Iraq Museum on June 12, 2003 by three unidentified men in their early twenties, driving a red Toyota vehicle. As reported by a correspondent for The Times newspaper, “ As they struggled to lift a large object wrapped in a blanket out of the boot, the American guards on the gate raised their weapons. For a moment, a priceless 5,000-year-old vase thought to have been lost in looting after the fall of Baghdad seemed about to meet its end. But one of the men peeled back the blanket to reveal carved alabaster pieces that were clearly something extraordinary. Three feet high and weighing 600lb intact, this was the Sacred Vase of Warka, regarded by experts as one of the most precious of all the treasures taken during looting that shocked the world in the chaos following the fall of Baghdad. Broken in antiquity and stuck together, it was once again in pieces.

"Soon after the vase's return, broken into 14 pieces, it was announced that the vase would be restored. A pair of comparison photographs, released by the Oriental Institute, Chicago, showed significant damage (as of the day of return, 12 June 2003) to the top and bottom of the vessel.

"The current condition of the Warka Vase (museum number IM19606) is not known. In June 2007, The Guardian newspaper reported that widespread looting of antiquities is ongoing in Iraq and that the director of the Iraq Museum, Donny George, fled in August 2006 after receiving death threats. The museum's entrances have been bricked up, the building surrounded by concrete walls, and the museum's staff do not have access" (Wikipedia article on Warka Vase, accessed 07-11-2009).

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The Oldest-Known List of Titles and Occupations Circa 3,200 BCE

A proto-cuneiform clay tablet (VAT 15003) from the Eana (Eanna) district, Uruk IV period, preserved in The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, records the oldest-known version of a list of titles and occupations, known as the Standard Occupations List. 

"Such lists, known as 'lexical lists,' were used to train scribes and also served to organize knowledge. This scribal exercise from the early Uruk IV writing stage represents what was apparently a favorite version of such compilations. it content was copied many times in the subsequent Uruk III period (about 180 frams of it are preserved), and it was the model for numerous mofied and exapned forms of such lists. The popularity of such standardized lists is indicated by  the fact that they were repeatedly copied and recopied down through the Akkadian dynasty (twenty-third century BC) nearly a millennium after their creation" (Woods, Teeter, Emberling (eds) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] No. 46, with color images of obverse, reverse and a composite drawing of the archaic lexical list).

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The Earliest Inscription Written in Hieratic 3,200 BCE

Seal impression with the name of Narmer from Tarkhan.

The earliest known hieratic inscription, dating from about 3200 BCE, is the royal name Scorpion found on jars excavated at Tarkhan, just south of Cairo.

"The appearance of hieratic so early suggests that it was not a later adaptation of hieroglyphs but was developed alongside it. These early inscriptions were very brief and are found on vessels from burials. Typically they list only royal names and information about the contents of the vessels, frequently the place of origin" (Katheryn E. Bandy, "Hieratic" IN: Woods (ed) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 159).

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The Word Bibliography is Derived from a Greek Word for Papyrus Circa 3,100 BCE – 3,050 BCE

The pith of the papyrus plant was used in Egypt at least as far back as the First dynasty, for boats, mattresses, mats and as a writing surface. The Egyptian word papyrus, meaning "that of the king," may indicate a Pharonic monopoly in the period.

"The English word papyrus derives, via Latin, from Greek πάπυρος papyros. Greek has a second word for papyrus, βύβλος byblos (said to derive from the name of the Phoenician city of Byblos). The Greek writer Theophrastus, who flourished during the 4th century BC, uses papuros when referring to the plant used as a foodstuff and bublos for the same plant when used for non-food products, such as cordage, basketry, or a writing surface. The more specific term βίβλος biblos, which finds its way into English in such words as bibliography, bibliophile, and bible, refers to the inner bark of the papyrus plant. Papyrus is also the etymon of paper, a similar substance" (Wikipedia article on Papyrus, accessed 01-03-2010).

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The Earliest Autograph Signatures Circa 3,100 BCE

A pictographic list of titles and professions in ancient Sumeria (top), with the scribe's signature on the reverse side (bottom.) (View Larger)

Pictographic lexical lists written in ancient Sumerian pictographic script on clay tablets are the earliest literature known, and also the earliest known evidence of school and learning.

An example preserved in the Schøyen Collection (MS 2429/4 MS 2429/4) is a lexical list of 41 titles and professions, starting: Nam Gist Sita (Lord of the Mace), signed by the scribe Gar.Ama. 

The scribal signatures on this tablet and other lexical lists are the earliest autograph signatures extant.

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The Oldest Non-Clonal, Acknowledged Living Organism Circa 3,051 BCE

Bristlecone pinetree nickednamed Methuselah.

The oldest non-clonal, acknowledged living organism is the Great Basin bristlceone pine Pinus longaeva located in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of Inyo County in eastern California. One member of this species, the location of which has not been specifically identified, is estimated to have germinated in 3051 BCE, making it 5064 years old in 2014.

In 1964 Donald R. Currey, a student of the University of North Carolina taking core samples of bristlecone pines, discovered "Prometheus" in the Snake Range of eastern Nevada, in a cirque below Wheeler Peak. Currey's coring tool broke and, regrettably the U.S. Forest service granted permission to cut down "Prometheus." 4,844 rings were counted on a cross-section of the tree, making "Prometheus" at least 4,844 years old, and the oldest known non-clonal living thing.

"A specimen of this species, located in the White Mountains of California was measured by Tom Harlan to be 5,062 years old in 2012. The identity of the specimen is being kept secret by Harlan. This is the oldest known tree in North America, and the oldest known individual tree in the world, although a clonal individual, nicknamed "Old Tjikko", a Norway spruce in Sweden is 9,550 years old.

"The previously oldest named specimen of this species, "Methuselah", is also located in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of the White Mountains. Methuselah is 4,844 years old, as measured by annual ring count on a small core taken with an increment borer. Its exact location is also kept secret.

"Among the White Mountain specimens, the oldest trees are found on north-facing slopes, with an average of 2,000 years, as compared to the 1,000 year average on the southern slopes. The climate and the durability of their wood can preserve them long after death, with dead trees as old as 7,000 years persisting next to live ones" (Wikipedia article on Pinus lagaeva, accessed 11-09-2014).


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Education in the Bronze Age in the Middle East Circa 3,000 BCE – 1,200 BCE

Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE), the most famous of the early Babylonian kings. (View Larger)

"In the Bronze Age (c. 3000-1200 BC in the Middle East) the production and transmission of literate knowledge was cited in scribal schools. No doubt temples, courts and other places were also centers of intellectual and cultural exchange at this time, but they have not yet been identified and analyzed as such through the archaeological record. Second-millennium schools, on the other hand, have been carefully studied in recent years, enabling us to look at them in the light of book history. For instance, in the early 1950s over a thousand tablets, mostly in fragments, were excavated from 'House F," a small urban house in Nippur near modern Najaf. According to the datable household documents found in it, House F was used as a scribal school in the 1750s BC, immediately after the reign of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) the most famous of the early Babylonian kings.

"About half of the tablets in House F are the by-products of an elementary scribal education. They take the trainee from learning how to use a stylus to make horizontal, vertical, and diagonal wedges on the tablet to writing whole sentences in literary Sumerian. The students doubless learned to make their own tablets too, because in the corner of the tiny courtyard was a bitumen-lined basin filled with a mixture of fresh tablet clay and crumpled up tablets waiting to be recycled. Both the elementary exercises and the tablets themselves were standardized, with format and content closely related to pedagogical function" (Robson, "The Clay Tablet Book in Sumer, Assyria, and Babylonia," Eliot & Rose [eds.], A Companion to the History of the Book [2007] 71).

It is thought that the tablets from House F survived because they were reused as building material.

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The Oldest Known Papyrus Roll - Blank Circa 2,900 BCE

The hieroglyphic name of Hemaka, highlighted in red.

"The ancient Egyptians had used rolls made of papyrus from the early days of the Old Kingdom. The oldest known papyrus roll was found in the tomb of Hemaka in Saqqara, and dates to the 1st dynasty, around 2900 BC. The hieroglyph for 'papyrus roll' existed already in inscriptions from this period. The 1st dynasty roll was blank; the oldest examples with writing dated from the 4th and 5th dynasties" (Roemer, "The Papyrus Roll in Egypt, Greece, and Rome," Eliot & Rose (eds) A Companion to the History of the Book [2007] 84).

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Pavlopetri: the Oldest Submerged Town Site 2,800 BCE

Discovered in 1967 by Nicolas Flemming and first mapped in 1968, the city of Pavlopetri, underwater off the coast of southern Laconia in Peloponnesos, Greece, is the oldest submerged archeological town site, and though the buildings were eroded over the millenia, the city is unique in having an almost complete town plan, including streets, buildings, and tombs. It is now believed that the town was submerged around 1000 BCE, and because the area never reemerged from the sea, it was neither built-over nor disrupted by agriculture. It has at least 15 buildings submerged in 3 to 4 metres (9.8–13 ft) of water. The ancient name of the city is unknown; the name Pavlopetri ("Paul's and Peter's", or "Paul's stone") is the modern name for the islet and beach, presumably named for the two Christian saints that are celebrated together.

Earlier, the ruins of Pavlopetri were dated to the Mycenaean period, 1600-1100 BC. Later studies showed an older occupation date starting no later than 2800 BCE, so it also includes early Bronze Age middle Minoan and transitional material.

The site is under threat of damage by boats dragging anchors, as well as by tourists and souvenir hunters. In 2009 John C. Henderson from the University of Nottingham and team began archeological work on Pavlopetri, to map the site in great detail using the latest technology. As a result, Pavlopetri became the first submerged town to be digitally surveyed in three dimensions using sonar mapping techniques developed by military and oil prospecting organizations.  Because the archeologists collected 3D digital information in the survey process their data allowed a 3D digital reconstruction of the site by computer graphics professionals.

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"The Seated Scribe" or "Squatting Scribe" Circa 2,620 BCE – 2,500 BCE

The Seated Scribe or Squatting Scribe, a painted limestone sculpture of a seated scribe at work, was discovered by French archaeologist Auguste Mariette in 1850 at Saqqara, a vast burial ground in Egypt. It has been dated to the 4th Dynasty, 2620–2500 BCE. The sculpture is preserved in the Louvre.

"The figure is dressed in a white kilt stretched to its knees. It is holding a half rolled papyrus. Perhaps the most striking part aspect of the figure is its face. Its realistic features stand in contrast to perhaps more rigid and somewhat less detailed body. Hands, fingers, and fingernails of the sculpture are delicately modeled. The hands are in writing position. It seems that the right hand was holding a brush, now missing. The body is sturdy with a broad chest. The nipples are marked with two wooden stubs. . . .The dating itself remains uncertain; the period of the 6th dynasty has also been suggested. One additional fact in favor of the earlier date is that the statue is represented in writing' position while it seems that scribes from the period after the 5th dynasty have been portrayed mainly in 'reading' position' (Wikipedia article on The Seated Scribe, accessed 10-10-2013).

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The First Securely Datable Mathematical Table in World History Circa 2,600 BCE

The world’s oldest datable mathematical table, from Shuruppag, c. 2600 BCE.  The first two columns contain identical lengths in descending order from 600 to 60 rods (c. 3600–360 m) and the final column contains the square area of their product.

The sequence continues on the reverse, and probably finished at 1 rod (6m).

Tablet from Shuruppag, now in the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.

"The first securely datable mathematical table in world history comes from the Sumerian city of Shuruppag, c. 2600 BCE. The table is ruled into three columns on each side with ten rows on the front or obverse side. The first columns of the obverse list length measures from c. 3.6km to 360 m in descending units of 360 m, followed by the Sumerian word sa ('equal' and/ or 'opposite') while the final column gives their products in area measure. Only six rows are extant or partially preserved on the reverse. They continue the table in smaller units, from 300 to 60 m in 60 m steps, and then perhaps (in the damaged and missing lower half) from 56 to 6 m in 6 m steps. While the table is organized along two axes, there is just one axis of calculation, namely, the horizontal multiplications. Around a thousand tablets were excavated from Shuruppaq, almost all of them from houses and buildings which burned down in a city-wide fire in about 2600 BCE, but sadly we have no detailed context for this table because its excavation number was lost or never recorded." (Eleanor Robson, "Tables and tabular formatting in Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria, 2500 BCE-50," Campbell-Kelly et al [eds]. The History of Mathematical Tables from Sumer to Spreadsheets [2003] 27-29).

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The Wooden Panels of Hesy-Ra: Government Official, Physician, and Scribe Circa 2,600 BCE – 2,500 BCE

The wooden panels of Hesy-Ra (Hesire, Hesira), a government official, physician, and scribe who lived in the Third Dynasty of Egypt, and served under the pharaoh Djoser, were excavated from his tomb or mastaba in Saqqara (Sakkara, Saqqarah).  Hesy-Ra bore titles such as "Chief of Dentists and Physicians," and "Chief of the King's Scribes." He may be the earliest physician whose identity is known.

One of the wooden panels shows Hesy-Ra seated before the offering table. Slung over his shoulder are his writing utensils consisting of palette, ink bag and brush holder. 

"The Egyptian scribes used brushes made of stems of reeds 1.5 to 2.5 millmetres thick cut to a length of 16 to 25 centimetres. They were beaten or chewed to pulp at one end and kept in a tubular receptacle. Ink, which has retained its pitch black colour surprisingly well over thousands of years, was made of carbon mixed with gum. For rubrics they also had red ink made of ochre and gum. Since the ink was in the form of a powdered pigment kept in a bag or on a palette, a small pot containing water for disolving the ink also belonged to the scribe's equipment. The holder for the brushes, bag and palette were tied together. The scribe either carried his writing utensils in his hands or—if he needed his hands for other things—slung over his shoulder in such a way that the palette lay on his chest, ink bag and brush holder on his back" (Hussein, Origins of the Book. Egypt's contribution to the development of the book from papyrus to codex [1970] 10, plate 25).

The panels are preserved in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. 

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The Abu Salbikh Tablet Lost in the Iraq War Circa 2,500 BCE

The Instructions of Shuruppak, one of the earliest surviving literary works, is a Sumerian "wisdom" text. This was a genre of literature common in the Ancient Near East intended to teach proper piety, inculcate virtue and preserve community standing.

The text was set in great antiquity by its incipit: "In those days, in those far remote times, in those nights, in those faraway nights, in those years, in those far remote years." The precepts were placed in the mouth of a king "Shuruppak, son of Ubara-Tutu." Ubara-Tutu was the last king of Sumer before the universal deluge.

The oldest known copy of the Instructions of Shuruppak is the Abu Salabikh Tablet found at Abu Salabikh, near near the site of ancient Nippur in Central Babylonia (now southern Iraq). Abu Salabikh marks the site of a small Sumerian city of the mid third millennium BCE. It was excavated by an American expedition from the Oriental Institute of Chicago in 1963 and 1965, and was a British concern for the British School of Archaeology in Iraq (1975–89), after which excavations were suspended with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

"The city, built on a rectilinear plan in Early Uruk times, revealed a small but important repertory of cuneiform texts on some 500 tablets, of which the originals were stored in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, and were largely lost when the museum was looted in the early stages of the Second Iraq War; fortunately they had been carefully published."

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The Origins of Glassmaking Circa 2,500 BCE – 1,250 BCE

Archaeological evidence and the analysis of ancient sources point to a Mesopotamian origin for glassmaking around 2500 BCE. This craft and its makers migrated to Egypt around 1400 BCE where glassmaking soon developed as an independent technology.

"Glass beads are known from the 3rd millennium BC but it is only in the late 2nd millennium that glass finds start occurring more frequently, primarily in Egypt and Mesopotamia. This is not to say that it was a widespread commodity, quite the contrary. It was a material for high-status objects with archaeological evidence for the Late Bronze Age (LBA) also showing an almost exclusive distribution of glass finds at palace complexes such as that found in the city of Amarna - Egypt. Texts listing offerings to Egyptian temples would start with gold and silver, followed by precious stones (lapis lazuli) and then bronze, copper and other not so precious stones with glass mentioned together with the lapis lazuli. In this period it was rare and precious and its use largely restricted to the elite.

"Production of raw glass occurred at primary workshops of which only 3 are known, all in Egypt: Amarna, Ramesside [place?] and Malkata. At the first two sites cylindrical ceramic vessels with vitrified remains have been identified as glass crucibles where the raw materials (quartz pebbles and plant ash) would be melted together with a colourant. Interestingly the two sites seem to show a specialisation in colour, with blue glass, via the addition of cobalt, being produced at Amarna and red, through copper, at Piramesse. The resulting coloured glass would then be fashioned into actual objects at secondary workshops - far more common in the archaeological record. It seems certain that glass making was not exclusive to Egypt (in fact current scholarly opinion resides with the industry having originally been imported into the country) as there are Mesopotamian cuneiform texts which detail the recipes for the making of glass. Further supporting this hypothesis are the Amarna Letters, a contemporaneous diplomatic correspondence detailing the demand and gift giving from vassal princes in Syro-Palestine to the Egyptian King, in these the most asked for item is glass.

The evidence then points to two regions that were making and exchanging glass. It seems logical to believe that at an initial stage it was glass objects, as opposed to raw glass, that were exchanged. The major element composition of glass finds from Mesopotamia and Egypt is indistinguishable with as much variation found within a specific assemblage than between different sites. This is indicative of the same recipe being used in both regions. As analytical techniques develop the presence of trace elements can be more accurately determined and it has been found that glass is compositional identical within each region, but it is possible to discriminate between them. This could be a huge step in uncovering trade patterns, however at present no Egyptian glass has been found in Mesopotamia, nor have any Mesopotamian glasses been found in Egypt.

"Across the sea, Mycenaean glass beads were found to have been made with glass from both regions. The fact that the beads are stylistically Mycenaean would imply an import of raw glass. Archaeological evidence for this trade comes from the Uluburun shipwreck, dated to the 14th century BC. As part of its cargo it carried 175 raw glass ingots of cylindrical shape. These ingots match the glass melting crucibles found at Amarna and Piramesse [Pi-Rammesse] " (Wikipedia article on Ancient Glass Trade, accessed 01-12-2012).

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The Sitting Posture of Egyptian Scribes and How They Stored Papyrus Rolls. Circa 2,500 BCE

Detail from wall of tomb of Prince Kaninisut showing scribes in seated position. Please click on image to view larger image.

The Group of Scribes, the lower Range of Representations on the Northern Wall of the Tomb of Prince Kaninisut, excavated from Giza, shows 4 scribes sitting in the characteristic scribal posture on the floor, writing.  

"If writing was not done in a standing position, it was done sitting down with crossed legs, and the papyrus was laid without any support on the stretched kilt. The roll was held at right angles to the body and was unrolled with the left hand and rolled up with the right. The beginning was thus on the right-hand side and writing was done from the right to the left. Until the Twelfth Dynasty writing was done from the right to left in vertical lines, horizontal lines being only used for dates, headings or signatures. After the Twelfth Dynasty writing was done (from right to left) in horizontal lines, but one page was divided up into several columns. In certain texts writing was done backwards, i.e. single signs were written from right to left, but vertical lines (or columns) followed each other from left to right. In other manuscripts two columns were written alongside each other in such a way that in one the signs were written from left to right and in the other from right to left so that they 'looked at each other'. Adminstrative documents formed an exception; it was customary to hold them perpendicularly so that the lines ran parallel to the narrow side of the papyrus. The only known exception is thus all the more interesting. Since a Moscow papyrus containing an account of the voyage of Wenamum, i.e. a literary text, is wrriten in this way, it can be assume that it is an official report which the traveller wrote for some chancellery" (Hussein, Origins of the Book. Egypt's contribution to the development of the book from papyrus to codex (1970) 17-18, reproducing a drawing of the full Kaninisut relief on p. 11, caption p. 22).

Included in the image are receptacles for papyrus rolls, including bags and corded boxes. This limestone carving is from The Offering Room of Prince Kaninisut as preserved in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

"The postures and equipment of the scribes are very remarkable. Crouching on the ground, they seize the half-open papyrus with their left hand and hold the palette between the thumb and forefinger. With only one exception, the palettes are shells. Two round spots on the inside of the shells mark the places where they prepared the black and red used for the summary. Two spare reed pens stick behind the ear of each scribe. The boxes, destined to contain the papyri, show interesting forms" (Junker, The Offering Room of Prince Kaninisut [1951] 35 and plate 12).

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The Palace Archive of Ebla, Syria 2,500 BCE – 2,250 BCE

Ebla Tablet

Ebla tablets in situ.

Ebla tablets in situ.

Distribution of tablets on room shelves.

Between 1974 and 1975 Italian archaeologist Paolo Matthiae from the University of Rome La Sapienza and his team discovered up to 1800 cuneiform tablets and 4700 fragments, and many thousand minor chips, representing the palace archives of the ancient city of Ebla, Syria. The city of Ebla, long known from Egyptian and Akkadian inscriptions, had been discovered by Matthiae in 1968.

Collectively, the tablets discovered at Ebla have come to be known as the Ebla tablets. Found in situ on collapsed shelves, the tablets retained many of their contemporary clay tags, by which they could be referenced by original users. 

"About 80% of the tablets are written using the usual Sumerian combination of logograms and phonetic signs, while the others exhibited an innovative, purely phonetic representation using Sumerian cuneiform of a previously unknown Semitic language, which was called Eblaite. Bilingual Sumerian/Eblaite vocabulary lists were found among the tablets, allowing them to be translated. Giovanni Pettinato and Mitchell Dahood believed the Eblaite language was West Semitic, however I. J. Gelb and others believed it was an East Semitic dialect, closer to the Akkadian language. Now it is commonly accepted that Eblaite is part of the East Semitic branch of Semitic, and very close to the Akkadian language."

"It now appears that the building housing the tablets was not the palace library, which may yet be uncovered, but an archive of provisions and tribute, law cases and diplomatic and trade contacts, and a scriptorium where apprentices copied texts. The larger tablets had originally been stored on shelves, but had fallen onto the floor when the palace was destroyed. The location where tablets were discovered where they had fallen allowed the excavators to reconstruct their original position on the shelves: it soon appeared that they were originally shelved according to subject" (Wikipedia article on Ebla, accessed 01-12-2013).

The Ebla tablets are preserved in Syrian museums in Aleppo, Damascus, and Idlib.

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One of the Oldest, Largest & Best Preserved Vessels from Antiquity Circa 2,500 BCE

Measuring 43.67 m (143 ft.) long and 5.9 m (19.5 ft) wide, the funerary boat of King Cheops (Khufu, Khêops), the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, is one of the oldest, largest, and best-reserved vessels from antiquity. Around 2500 BCE the boat was sealed into a pit in the Giza Necropolis at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

"The ship was one of two rediscovered in 1954 by Kamal el-Mallakh – undisturbed since it was sealed into a pit carved out of the Giza bedrock. It was built largely of Lebanon cedar planking in the 'shell-first' construction technique, using unpegged tenons of Christ's thorn. The ship was built with a flat bottom composed of several planks, but no actual keel, with the planks and frames lashed together with Halfah grass, and has been reconstructed from 1,224 pieces which had been laid in a logical, disassembled order in the pit beside the pyramid" (Wikipedia article on Khufu ship, accessed 01-18-2013)

Though the Khufu ship is categorized as a solar barge or sun boat, intended for use in the afterlife, perhaps to allow the king to cross the sky every day with Re (Ra), the sun-god, it seems to have been used at least once—perhaps to carry the funeral cortêge of the king by river or canal to the pyramid complex for burial.

Having been restored over many years, the Khufu ship is preserved in the Giza Solar Boat Museum.

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The Earliest Known Egyptian Papyri 2,500 BCE

One of many papyrii found at Wadi al Jarf.  Thought to be the oldest known papyrii from Egypt.

Map showing location of Wadi al-Jarf.  Please click on image to view and resize larger image.


Between 2011 and 2013 a French-Egyptian archaeological mission from the French Institute of Archaeological Studies (IFAO) headed by Pierre Tallet, an Egyptologist at the University of Paris, discovered the earliest known Egyptian papyri at the site of the most ancient harbor ever found, on the shore of the Red Sea at Wadi al-Jarf 119 km (74 mi.) south of Suez. Along with numerous stone food and water storage jars, textile and wood fragments, hundreds of papyrus fragments were also found at the site, of which ten papyri are especially very well preserved.

The majority of these documents date to the 27th year of the reign of Khufu, and describe how the central administration sent food and supplies to Egyptian travelers. One document is of special interest: the diary of Merer (Merrer, Mererer), an official involved in the building of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, often called the Great Pyramid of Giza. Using the diary, researchers were able to reconstruct three months of Merer's life, providing new insight into everyday lives of people of the Fourth Dynasty.

(This entry was last revised on 09-26-2015.)

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The World's Oldest Harbor Circa 2,500 BCE

Photo of wharf at low tide, Wadi al-Jarf

Diagram of Harbour at Wadi al-Jarf.

Location of Wad al-Jarf.

Old Kingdom anchor at Wadi al-Jarf.

Between 2011 and 2013 a French-Egyptian archaeological mission from the French Institute of Archaeological Studies (IFAO) headed by Pierre Tallet, an Egyptologist at the University of Paris, discovered the most ancient harbor ever found on the shore of the Red Sea at Wadi al-Jarf 119 km (74 mi.) south of Suez. The harbor dates to the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt. Also discovered at the site were more than 100 anchors— the first Old Kingdom anchors found in their original context— and numerous storage jars. The jars have been linked with those of another site across the Red Sea, indicating trade between the two sites. Among products traded were copper and other minerals from Sinai. 

"The harbor complex consists of a 280 m (920 ft) long mole or jetty of stone that is still visible at low tide (28.8888°N 32.6815°E), an alamat or navigational landmark made of heaped stones, a strange 60 m × 30 m (200 ft × 98 ft) building of unknown function that is divided into 13 long rooms, and a series of 25 to 30 storage galleries carved into limestone outcrops. The building of unknown function is the largest pharaonic building discovered along the Red Sea coast to date. The storage galleries are between 16 and 34 m (52 and 112 ft) long, and are usually 3 m (9.8 ft) wide and 2.5 m (8.2 ft) tall.

"Inside the galleries, the archeological team discovered several boat and sail fragments, some oars, and numerous pieces of ancient rope. Twenty-five stone anchors were found under water, and 99 anchors were found in an apparent storage building. The discovery of anchors in their original context is a first in Old Kingdom archeology. Many of the anchors bear hieroglyphs, likely representing the boat's names from which they came.

"The port is to have been the starting point for voyages from mainland Egypt to South Sinai mining operations. Tallet speculates that the harbor may have also been used to launch voyages to "the mysterious Land of Punt", a known trading partner of Egypt. The archeologists who excavated the site believe that the harbor dates to the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu (2589–2566 B.C.), whose name is inscribed on some of the heavy limestone blocks at the site. That means the harbor predates the second-oldest known port structure by more than 1,000 years. There is some trace evidence of use during the early part of Fifth Dynasty, after which the harbor was likely abandoned" (Wikipedia article on Wadi-al-Jarf, accessed 04-25-2013).

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The Pyramid Texts: The Oldest Known Religious Texts Circa 2,400 BCE – 2,300 BCE

Pyramid texts located in Teti I's pyramid. (View Larger)

 A collection of ancient Egyptian religious texts inscribed within royal tombs from the time of the Old Kingdom, the Pyramid Texts are the oldest known religious texts. Written in Old Egyptian, they were carved on the walls and sarcophagi of the pyramids at Saqqara (Sakkara, Saqqarah; Arabic: سقا ) during the 5th and 6th Dynasties of the Old Kingdom.

The Pyramid Texts provide the earliest comprehensive view of the way in which the ancient Egyptians understood the structure of the universe, the role of the gods, and the fate of human beings after death. Their importance lies in their antiquity and in their endurance throughout the entire intellectual history of ancient Egypt. In the Middle Kingdom, many texts were borrowed from the pyramid chambers and mingled with new spells; this new form, called Coffin Texts, were usually written inside coffins. These eventually gave way to what we now know as the Book of the Dead.

"The oldest of the texts date to between 2400-2300 BCE. Unlike the Coffin Texts and Book of the Dead into which parts of the pyramid texts later evolved, the pyramid texts were reserved only for the pharaoh and were not illustrated. The pyramid texts mark the first written mention of the god Osiris, who would become the most important deity associated with afterlife.

"The spells, or "utterances", of the pyramid texts are primarily concerned with protecting the pharaoh's remains, reanimating his body after death, and helping him ascend to the heavens, which are the emphasis of the afterlife during the Old Kingdom. The spells delineate all of the ways the pharaoh could travel, including the use of ramps, stairs, ladders, and most importantly flying. The spells could also be used to call the gods to help, even threatening them if they did not comply" (Wikipedia article on Pyramid Texts, accessed 01-20-2009).

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The Earliest Known Dictionaries Circa 2,300 BCE

The Urra=hubullu, currently preserved at the Louvre Museum in Paris. (View Larger)

The oldest known dictionaries are cuneiform tablets from the Akkadian empire with biliingual wordlists in Sumerian and Akkadian discovered in Ebla in modern Syria.

The Urra=hubullu glossary, a major Babylonian glossary or encyclopedia from the second millenium BCE, preserved in the Louvre, is an outstanding example of this early form of wordlist. 

"The canonical version extends to 24 tablets. The conventional title is the first gloss, ur5-ra and ḫubullu meaning "interest-bearing debt" in Sumerian and Akkadian, respectively. One bilingual version from Ugarit [RS2.(23)+] is Sumerian/Hurrian rather than Sumerian/Akkadian.

"Tablets 4 and 5 list naval and terrestrial vehicles, respectively. Tablets 13 to 15 contain a systematic enumeration of animal names, tablet 16 lists stones and tablet 17 plants. Tablet 22 lists star names.

"The bulk of the collection was compiled in the Old Babylonian period (early 2nd millennium BC), with pre-canonical forerunner documents extending into the later 3rd millennium" (Wikipedia article on Urra=hubullu, accessed 05-08-2009).

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Wael Sherbiny Rediscovers the Oldest & Longest Egyptian Leather Roll Circa 2,300 BCE – 2,000 BCE

In September 2015 Egyptologist Wael Sherbiny of Brussels announced his rediscovery of the oldest and longest Egyptian leather roll in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Dating from the late Old Kingdom to the early Midddle Kingdom (2300-2000 BCE), the roll measures about 8.2 feet (2.5 meters). The manuscript, which had been lost in the museum for about 70 years, was purchased by the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo from a local antiquities dealer sometime after the WWI. It was later donated to the Egyptian Museum, where it was unrolled shortly before the outbreak of the WWII. After it was stored in the museum it seems to have been completely forgotten until it was rediscovered by Sherbiny.

Though a relatively large number of Egyptian papyrus rolls or fragments survived in Egypt because of the dry desert climate, very few ancient Egyptian leather rolls survived. According to Sherbiny, leather was considered a very precious writing material in ancient Egypt, and it was the principal medium for recording religious texts and great historic events, as it was more practical than papyrus due to its flexibility and durability. Leather rolls, kept in the libraries and archives of temples, were also used as master copies from which cheaper copies were reproduced on papyrus. However, leather had a low rate of survival in the deseart. The Cairo roll was no exception: part of it was fragmented into very tiny pieces. Like in a jigsaw puzzle, Sherbiny pieced them together.

"The pieces formed a large pictorial-textual segment from the so-called Book of Two Ways, which is an illustrated composition containing temple rituals later adapted for the funerary use.

"This composition is known to Egyptologists as it occurs on the floorboard of Middle Kingdom coffins (2055-1650 B.C.) from the necropolis of Hermopolis in Upper Egypt.

“ 'Amazingly, the roll offers an even more detailed iconography than the Hermopolitan coffins in terms of texts and drawings,' Sherbiny said" (http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/oldest-and-longest-ancient-egyptian-leather-manuscript-found-150914.htm, accessed 10-01-2015).

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The Earliest Printing was Stamped into Soft Clay in Mesopotamia Circa 2,291 BCE – 2,254 BCE

MS 5106 of the Schoyen Collection, a brick printing block with a large loop handle from the period of Naram-Sîn. (View larger)

The earliest printing was the stamping of inscriptions into the soft clay of bricks before firing, done under the rule of the Sumerian king Naram-Sîn of Akkad  (Narām-Sîn, Naram-Suen), ruler of the Akkadian Empire, who built the Temple of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of sexual love, fertility, and warfare. Prior to Naram-Sîn the inscriptions on the bricks were written by hand.

MS 5106 in the Schøyen Collection is a brick printing block, 13x13x10 cm, 3 lines in a large formal cuneiform script with large loop handle from the period of Naram-Sîn.

Only two other brick printing blocks of Naram-Sîn are known: one intact with a cylindrical handle in Istanbul, and a tiny fragment in British Museum.

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One of the Oldest Known Ancient Mesopotamian Medical Texts 2,112 BCE – 2,004 BCE

A reproduction of one of the oldest known Mesopotamian medical texts, dating from the Ur III period. (View Larger)

One of the oldest known ancient Mesopotamian medical texts is a collection of 15 prescriptions, written in Sumerian, on a clay tablet, which dates from the Ur III period, or Sumerian Renaissance. It was excavated at the site of the ancient city of Nippur in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), and is preserved in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum).

On May 29, 2009 a reproduction of this tablet, illustrated at this link, was available from the museum shop. The description of that reproduction dated the tablet to 2400 BCE.   

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The Oldest Known Tablet Containing a Legal Code 2,100 BCE – 2,050 BCE

The Code of Ur-Nammu.

"The Code of Ur-Nammu is the oldest known tablet containing a law code surviving today. It was written in the Sumerian language ca. 2100-2050 BC. Although the preface directly credits the laws to king Ur-Nammu of Ur (2112-2095 BC), some historians think they should rather be ascribed to his son Shulgi.

"The first copy of the code, in two fragments found at Nippur, was translated by Samuel Kramer in 1952; owing to its partial preservation, only the prologue and 5 of the laws were discernible. Further tablets were found in Ur and translated in 1965, allowing some 40 of the 57 laws to be reconstructed. Another copy found in Sippar contains slight variants.

"Although it is known that earlier law-codes existed, such as the Code of Urukagina, this represents the earliest legal text that is extant. It predated the Code of Hammurabi by some three centuries.

"The laws are arranged in casuistic form of if-(crime), then-(punishment) — a pattern to be followed in nearly all subsequent codes. For the oldest extant law-code known to history, it is considered remarkably advanced, because it institutes fines of monetary compensation for bodily damage, as opposed to the later lex talionis (‘eye for an eye’) principle of Babylonian law; however, the capital crimes of murder, robbery, adultery and rape are punished with death.

"The code reveals a glimpse at societal structure during the 'Sumerian Renaissance'. Beneath the lu-gal ('great man' or king), all members of society belonged to one of two basic strata: The 'lu' or free person, and the slave (male, arad; female geme). The son of a lu was called a dumu-nita until he married, becoming a 'young man' (gurus). A woman (munus) went from being a daughter (dumu-mi), to a wife (dam), then if she outlived her husband, a widow (nu-ma-su) who could remarry" (Wikipedia article on Code of Ur-Nammu, accessed 02-04-2009).

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The Garsana Archive of Cuneiform Tablets is Returned to Iraq 2,031 BCE – 2,024 BCE

On November 2, 2013 it was announced that Cornell University planned to forfeit and return to Iraq the archive of about 1400 cuneiform tablets known as the Garšana archive (Garsana), which was donated to Cornell beginning in the year 2000. The archive was returned under the assumption that the tablets were looted in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War

The Garšana archive represents the records of a rural estate at or near the town of Garšana located somewhere in the territory of the Sumerian city of Umma, probably in the vicinity of ancient Zabalam (Zabala) and Karkar. The tablets date from an eight year period, 2031-2024 BCE, during the Third Dynasty of Ur.  

"The estate was owned by Šu-Kabta, a physician and general, and his wife, the princess Simat-Ištaran. These documents record many of the daily functions of the estate and provide for the first time a comprehensive picture of life on such an estate. Detailed information on the construction and maintenance of the many buildings on the estate that included a brewery, textile and flour mills, leather working shop, and kitchen; the hiring and supervision of builders and laborers coming from various towns near and far; management of orchards; canal travel and trade between the estate and the cities of Sumer; and numerous other details of daily life. Particularly noteworthy are the funerary records of the family and the role of the princess Simat-Ištaran who assumed the control of the estate upon the death of her husband" (http://cuneiform.library.cornell.edu/collections/garsana, accessed 11-03-2013).

"Among the tablets is the private archive of a 21st century BC Sumerian princess in the city of Garsana that has made scholars rethink the role of women in the ancient kingdom of Ur. The administrative records show Simat-Ishtaran ruled the estate after her husband died.

"During her reign, women attained remarkably high status. They supervised men, received salaries equal to their male counterparts' and worked in construction, the clay tablets reveal.

" 'It's our first real archival discovery of an institution run by a woman,' said David Owen, the Cornell researcher who has led the study of the tablets. Because scholars do not know precisely where the tablets were found, however, the site of ancient Garsana cannot be excavated for further information.

"Other tablets provide detailed administrative records of ancient life, including the procedures for temple rituals, the resettlement of refugees and the output of agricultural lands.

"The source of the Garsana tablets was the subject of a 2001 investigation by the Department of Homeland Security, according to records obtained by Harvard researcher Benjamin Studevent-Hickman under the Freedom of Information Act. Buying and possessing antiquities illegally removed from countries such as Iraq, which claim them as government property, can be a violation of U.S. law" (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-iraq-tablets-cornell-university-20131103,0,7036026.story#axzz2jav6tYSE, accessed 11-03-2013).

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One of the Earliest Surviving Documents Written on Papyrus Circa 2,000 BCE

A section of the Prisse Papyrus, which is believed to be the earliest known document written on papyrus. (View Larger)

The Prisse Papyrus, dating from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, was often considered the earliest known document written on papyrus until the discovery of papyri from the 27th year of Khufu's reign at Wadi al-Jarf. It contains the last two pages of the Instruction addressed to Kagemni, who purportedly served under the 4th Dynasty king Sneferu, and is a compilation of moral maxims and admonitions on the practice of virtue. The conclusion of the Instruction addressed to Kagemni is followed by the only complete surviving copy of the Instruction of Ptahhotep.

The papyrus was obtained by the French orientalist Achille Constant Théodore Émile Prisse d'Avennes at Thebes in 1856. It is preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Hunter, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft (1947) 464.

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"The World's First Typewritten Document" - James Chadwick Circa 2,000 BCE – 1,700 BCE

Sides A (left) and B (right) of the Phaistos Disc. (View Larger)

The Phaistos Disc, a disc of fired clay from the Minoan Palace of Phaistos on the island of Crete, was discovered in 1908 by the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier, and remains the most famous document found in Crete.

"It is about 15 cm (5.9 in) in diameter and covered on both sides with a spiral of stamped symbols. Its purpose and meaning, and even its original geographical place of manufacture, remain disputed, making it one of the most famous mysteries of archaeology. This unique object is now on display at the archaeological museum of Heraklion in Crete" (Wikipedia article on Phaistos Disc, accessed 07-26-2009).

Because of the unique features of the disc, and the mysteries surrounding its origin, many people have doubted its authenticity, but no one has yet been able to prove conclusively that it is a forgery.

"The disk has the distinction of being the world's first typewritten document. It was made by taking a stamp or punch bearing the sign to be written in a raised pattern, and impressing this on the wet clay. The maker therefore needed to have as many stamps as there were signs in the script. It has the advantage that even complicated signs can be quickly written, and every example of the same sign is identical and easy to read. The disadvantage is that a considerable outlay of time and effort is required to make the set of stamps before any document can be produced. It is therefore evident that the system was not created solely for a single document; its maker must have intended to reproduce a large number of documents, though it remains some way from being an anticipation of printing.

"It is therefore all the more remarkable that after more than eighty years of excavation not another single scrap of clay impressed with these stamps had been found at Phaistos, or at any other site in Crete or elsewhere. It would be very surprising if there were not somewhere more examples of the script waiting to be found, but the disk remains so far unique, and the suspicion must arise that it was an isolated object brought from some other area.

"This impression of foreign origin can be supported by two arguments. The work of cutting the stamps, whether made directly or perhaps more likely by making moulds into which metal was poured, is a technique very similar to gem-engraving. We might therefore expect the signs to bear a stylistic resemblance to those engraved on seal-stones. In fact the style of art is noticeably different. Secondly, some of the objects depicted by the signs have a distinctly foreign appearance to those familiar with Minoan art" (Chadwick, Linear B and Related Scripts  [1987]  57-58).

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The Older of the Two Best-Known Mathematical Papyri Circa 2,000 BCE

Several problems from the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus. (View Larger)

The Moscow Mathematical Papyrus, the older of the two best-known mathematical papyri along with the larger Rhind Mathematical Papyrus (noticed in this database), is also called the Golenischev Mathematical Papyrus after its first owner, Egyptologist Vladimir Goleniščev, who in 1909 sold his huge collection of Egyptian artifacts to  Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, where the papyrus is preserved today.

"Based on the palaeography of the hieratic text, it probably dates to the Eleventh dynasty of Egypt. Approximately 18 feet long and varying between 1 1/2 and 3 inches wide, its format was divided into 25 problems with solutions by the Soviet Orientalist Vasily Vasilievich Struve in 1930" (Wikipedia article on Moscow Mathematical Papyrus, accessed 09-11-2009).

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One of the Earliest Medical and Mathematical Documents Circa 2,000 BCE

The Berlin Papyrus 6619, commonly known as the Berlin Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian papyrus document from the Middle Kingdom, was found at the ancient burial ground of Saqqara in the early 19th century CE.

"The papyrus is one of the primary sources of ancient Egyptian mathematical and medical knowledge, including the first known documentation concerning pregnancy test procedures, and is thus part of the medical papyri.

"The Berlin Papyrus contains a problem stated as "the area of a square of 100 is equal to that of two smaller squares. The side of one is ½ + ¼ the side of the other."[4] The interest in the question may suggest some knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem, though the papyrus only shows a straightforward solution to a single second degree equations in one unknown. In modern terms, the simultaneous equations x2 + y2 = 100 and x = (3/4)y reduce to the single equation in y: ((3/4)y)2 + y2 = 100, giving the solution y = 8 and x = 6" (Wikipedia article on Berlin Papyrus, accessed 12-29-2010).

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The Earliest Surviving Literary or Library Catalogues Circa 2,000 BCE

Two cuneiform tablets found at Nippur, (Mesopotamia; now Iraq) are inscribed with a list of Sumerian works of literature in no apparent order.  One has 68 titles, the other 48 works.  These represent the earliest surviving literary or library catalogues. 

Casson, Libraries in the Ancient World (2001) 4. 

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Execration Texts: Ceremonial Writing and Sympathetic Magic in Ancient Egypt Circa 2,000 BCE – 1,800 BCE

Most often written upon statuettes of bound foreigners, bowls, or blocks of clay or stone, which were subsequently destroyed, Execration Texts, also referred to as proscription lists, were ancient Egyptian hieratic  texts, listing enemies of the Pharaoh, enemies of the Egyptian state or troublesome foreign neighbors. The ceremonial process of breaking the written names and burying them was believed to be sympathetic magic that would affect the persons or entities named in the texts. This magical practice, in which Execration Text framents were usually placed near tombs or ritual sites, was most common during times of conflict with Egypt's Asiatic neighbors. 

"The Execration texts are an important resource for researchers in the field of ancient Near Eastern history of the 20th-18th centuries BCE and Bible studies. The first group of Execration Texts were published by Kurt Sethe in 1926, known as the Berlin texts. Georges Posener published a second group of texts in 1957, known as the Brussels texts.

"The first collection are inscribed on pottery sherds, and contain the names of approximately 20 places in Canaan and Phoenicia, and over 30 rulers of the period. These texts contain what is possibly the first known mention of Jerusalem, from the beginning of the second millennium BCE, the end of the Eleventh dynasty to the Twelfth dynasty.

"The second group of texts are inscribed on figurines of bound prisoners discovered in Saqqara. This group contains the names of 64 places, usually listing one or two rulers. Seven known Asian countries are listed. This group has been dated to the end of the Twelfth dynasty.

"An additional group of texts, the Mirgissa texts, was published by Yvan Koenig in 1990" (Wikipedia article on Execration texts, accessed 07-12-2014).


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The Earliest Representation of an Organized Fighting System Circa 2,000 BCE

A fresco from tomb 15 of the Middle Kingdom at Beni Hassan (Beni Hasan) Egypt, dating from circa 2000 BCE, remains the earliest representation of an organized fighting system, or system of wrestling. 

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The Oldest Surviving Illustrated Papyrus Roll Circa 1,980 BCE

Fragments of the Ramesseum Papyrus.

The Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus (also called the Ramesseum Papyrus) is the oldest known surviving illustrated papyrus roll. It measures about 7 feet by about 10 inches, and was found in 1895-96 by the English Egyptologist James E. Quibell, excavating on behalf of the Egyptian Research Account in the Ramesseum, the memorial temple (or mortuary temple) of Pharaoh Ramesses II ("Ramesses the Great" (Ramses, Rameses). The Ramesseum is located in the Theban necropolis in Upper Egypt, across the Nile from the modern city of Luxor.

"It contains a ceremonial play written to celebrate the accession to the throne of Senusret I of the Twelfth Dynasty . . . . The text of the roll is in linear hieroglyphs written in narrow, vertical columns. The text occupies the top four-fifths of the scroll and the illustrations the bottom. the scenes are arranged in a manner similar to a modern comic strip with the Pharaoh, in the role of Horus, appearing multiple times. Scenes are divided from each other by vertical lines. The drawing style is so simple that the figures are little more than enlarged hieroglyphs" (Wikipedia article on Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus, accessed 01-20-2009).

"This hieroglyphic figure style, as one might call it, suggests that we are not too far away in time from the beginning of papyrus roll illustration as a new branch of art, although it must be remembered that this roll is unique both as to its text and as to the period in which it was made" (Weitzmann, Illustrations in Roll and Codex. A Study of the Origin and Method of Text Illustration [1970] 58).

Diringer, The Illuminated Book: Its History & Production (1967) 27.

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The Most Famous Document of Babylonian Mathematics Circa 1,900 BCE – 1,700 BCE

Plimpton 322 (View Larger)

The most famous original document of Babylonian mathematics is Plimpton 322, a partly broken clay tablet, approximately 13cm wide, 9cm tall, and 2cm thick. New York publisher George A. Plimpton purchased the tablet from archaeological dealer, Edgar J. Banks in 1922 or 1923, and bequeathed it with the rest of his collection to Columbia University in 1936. According to Banks, the tablet came from Senkereh, a site in sourthern Iraq, corresponding to the ancient city of Larsa

This tablet has a table of four columns and 15 rows of numbers in cuneiform script, and has been called the only true mathematical table surviving from the period.

"The most renowned of all mathematical cuneiform tablets since it was published in 1945, Plimpton 322 reveals that the Babylonians discovered a method of finding Pythagorean triples, that is, sets of three whole numbers such that the square of one of them is the sum of the squares of the other two. By Pythagoras' Theorem, a triangle whose three sides are proportional to a Pythagorean triple is a right-angled triangle. Right-angled triangles with sides proportional to the simplest Pythagorean triples turn up frequently in Babylonian problem texts; but if this tablet had not come to light, we would have had no reason to suspect that a general method capable of generating an unlimited number of distinct Pythagorean triples was known a millennium and a half before Euclid.  

"Plimpton 322 has excited much debate centering on two questions. First, what was the method by which the numbers in the table were calculated? And secondly, what were the purpose and the intellectual context of the tablet? At present there is no agreement among scholars about whether this was a document connected with scribal education, like the majority of Old Babylonian mathematical tablets, or part of a research project" (http://www.nyu.edu/isaw/exhibitions/before-pythagoras/items/plimpton-322/, accessed 11-23-2010).

Though the consensus may be that the tablet contains a listing of Pythagorean triples, Eleanor Robson pointed out that historical, cultural and linguistic evidence reveal that the tablet is more likely "a list of regular reciprocal pairs": Robson, "Words and Pictures. New Light on Plimpton 322," American Mathematical Monthly 109 (2001) 105-121.

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Illustrating the Pythagorean Theorem and the Square Root of Two Circa 1,900 BCE – 1,700 BCE

The obverse and reverse sides of YBC 7289. Images by Image by West Semitic Research.(View Larger)

Yale YBC 7289, one of the few cuneiform tables to consist entirely of a geometrical diagram, shows that Babylonian scribes knew the Pythagorean Theorem and possessed a method of calculating accurate estimates of square roots. 

On the obverse, the scribe drew a square and its diagonals.

"According to Pythagoras' Theorem the length of the diagonal is the length of the side multiplied by the square root of 2. An accurate approximation of this quantity in sexagesimal notation is written along one diagonal. One side is labelled with its length, and the product of this number by the square root of 2 is also written along the diagonal" (http://www.nyu.edu/isaw/exhibitions/before-pythagoras/items/ybc-7289/, accessed 11-23-2010).

The tablet was acquired by 1944  by the Yale Babylonian Collection.

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Probably the Most Ancient Surviving Fermented Beverages Circa 1,900 BCE – 700 BCE

In 2004 tightly lidded bronze vessels from the city of Anyang and elite burials excavated at major urban centers along the Yellow River or its tributaries in Hebei, Henan, and Shanxi provinces of northern China, including Erlitou, Zhengzhou, Taixi, and Tianhu, dating to the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties, were shown from archaeochemical analysis by University of Pennsylvania archaeochemist Patrick E. McGovern to contain samples of fermented beverages in their liquid state. 

"Most often, they [the fermented liquids] have been recovered from the elite burials of high-ranking individuals. The shapes of many of the bronze vessels [ornate tripod vessels (jue and jia), stemmed goblets (gu), vats (zun), and jars (hu, lei, and you)] imply that they were used to prepare, store, serve, drink, and ceremonially present fermented beverages, which is supported by textual evidence. Besides serving as burial goods to sustain the dead in the afterlife, the vessels and their contents also can be related to funerary ceremonies in which intermediaries communicated with the deceased ancestor and gods in an altered state of consciousness after imbibing a fermented beverage

"The fragrant aroma of the liquids inside the tightly lidded jars and vats, when their lids were first removed after some 3,000 years, suggests that they indeed represent Shang/Western Zhou fermented beverages. The Changzikou Tomb vessels, one of which is reported on here, exemplify this phenomenon: of more than 90 bronze vessels in the tomb, 52 lidded examples were still a quarter- to half-full of liquid (15). Most recently (early 2003), an excavation of an upper-class tomb in Xi'an yielded a lidded vessel holding 26 liters of what was described as a liquid with a “delicious aroma and light flavor” (G.C., unpublished data). What accounts for such amazing preservation of liquids, which would be anticipated to have evaporated and disappeared? Chinese bronze-making technology assured that the lids were tightly fitted to the mouths of vessels. Then, over time, the lids corroded and cut off further exchange with the outside atmosphere, hermetically sealing off any liquid remaining inside the vessels.  

"Previous attempts to identify the compounds responsible for the aromas of the liquids contained in the Shang/Western Zhou lidded bronze vessels, as well as other basic ingredients, have been largely inconclusive or are unpublished. Positive evidence for yeast cells was obtained from an 8.5-kg solid white residue inside a weng jar at Taixi, probably the lees of a fermented beverage. Habitation contexts at Taixi also yielded specific pottery forms, including a funnel and a deep vat with a pointed and recessed bottom (“general's helmet”), which were likely used in beverage-making (3, 5). Several jars at this site also contained peach, plum, and Chinese date (jujube) pits, as well as seeds of sweet clover, jasmine, and hemp, suggesting that an herbal fruit drink was prepared.  

"Our analyses of the liquids inside lidded jars from Anyang and the Changzikou Tomb can be summarized briefly. Beeswax and epicuticular wax compounds were absent, implying the absence of honey or a plant additive. Tartaric acid and its salts were present at a very low level only in the Changzikou Tomb, consistent with mold saccharification of rice. Although the Changzikou Tomb sample gave a δ13C value of –25.3‰ in accord with a C3 plant such as rice (Table 1), the stable isotope determination for the Anyang liquid (–15.9‰) indicated that a C4 plant was used as a principal ingredient. Millet, which is well represented in the Anyang archaeobotanical corpus, is the most likely candidate" (Patrick E. McGovern, Juzhong Zhang, et al, "Fermented beverages of pre-and proto-historic China," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Published online before print December 8, 2004, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0407921102 PNAS December 21, 2004 vol. 101 no. 51 17593-17598, accessed 01-11-2013)

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Discovery of the "Ark Tablet": Decoding the Story of the Flood Circa 1,900 BCE – 1,700 BCE

In 2009 British Museum curator Irving Finkel, an expert on cuneiform inscriptions on clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia, received for examination and translation what came to be known as the "Ark Tablet" from its owner Douglas Simmonds. This is the only cuneiform tablet with precise instructions as to how to build the Ark described in the early accounts of the flood, best known through later accounts in literature, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Ark Tablet provided instructions for building the Ark in the form of a very large round boat called a coracle.

According to Finkel, the tablet dates from 1900-1700 BCE, though the tablet was not dated by the scribe. However, comparatively precise dating can be done from the character and composition of the cuneiform signs and from grammatical forms and usages. The tablet measures 11.5 x 6.0 cm and contains exactly 60 lines of cuneiform script written out ably and without error. In The Ark Before Noah. Decoding the Story of the Flood (2014) Finkel illustrated the tablet and translated its contents on pp. 107-110. Incidentally Finkel's well-illustrated book is a masterpiece of writing about relatively abstruse subjects for the general public. So geared to a non-scholarly audience is this book that footnotes are not even mentioned in the text. One has to search for them at the back of the book.

In the British Museum blog announcing his book on January 23, 2014 Finkel summarized his conclusions in this way:

"When the gods decided to wipe out mankind with a flood, the god Enki, who had a sense of humour, leaked the news to a man called Atra-hasis, the ‘Babylonian Noah,’ who was to build the Ark. Atra-hasis’s Ark, however was round. To my knowledge, no one has ever thought of that possibility. The new tablet also describes the materials and the measurements to build it: quantities of palm-fibre rope, wooden ribs and bathfuls of hot bitumen to waterproof the finished vessel. The result was a traditional coracle, but the largest the world had ever dreamed of, with an area of 3,600 sq. metres (equivalent to two-thirds the area of a football pitch), and six-metre high walls. The amount of rope prescribed, stretched out in a line, would reach from London to Edinburgh!

"To anyone who has the typical image learnt from children’s toys and book illustrations in mind, a round Ark is bizarre at first, but, on reflection, the idea makes sense. A waterproofed coracle would never sink and being round isn’t a problem – it never had to go anywhere: all it had to do was float and keep the contents safe: a cosmic lifeboat. Palm-and-pitch coracles had been seen on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers since time immemorial: they were still a common sight on Iraq’s great waterways in the 1950s."

In an article in The Guardian published on January 24, 2014 Finkel was quoted as saying, "I am 107% convinced the ark never existed."

"Finkel describes the clay tablet as 'one of the most important human documents ever discovered', and his conclusions will send ripples into the world of creationism and among ark hunters, where many believe in the literal truth of the Bible account, and innumerable expeditions have been mounted to try to find the remains of the ark.

"The clay tablet is going on display at the British Museum, loaned by Simmons, beside a tablet from the museum's collection with the earliest map of the world, as seen from ancient Babylon. The flood tablet helped explain details of the map, which shows islands beyond the river marking the edge of the known world, with the text on the back explaining that on one are the remains of the ark.

"Finkel said that not only did the ark never exist, but ark hunters were looking in the wrong place – the map shows the ark in the direction of, but far beyond the mountain range later known as Ararat."

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The Oldest Known Medical Papyrus Circa 1,800 BCE

The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus (also Kahun Papyrus, Kahun Medical Papyrus, or UC 32057) is the oldest known medical text on papyrus. It was found at El-Lahun, Egypt (Faiyum, Kahun, كاهون‎) by Flinders Petrie in 1889  and first translated by F. Ll. Griffith in 1893 and published in The Petrie Papyri: Hieratic Papyri from Kahun and Gurob.

The papyrus concerns women's complaints—gynaecological diseases, fertility, pregnancy, and contraception. "The text is divided into thirty-four sections, each section dealing with a specific problem and containing diagnosis and treatment, no prognosis is suggested. Treatments are non surgical, comprising applying medicines to the affected body part or swallowing them. The womb is at times seen as the source of complaints manifesting themselves in other body parts."

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Thousands of Cuneiform Tablets Document Babylonian Mathematics 1,800 BCE – 1,600 BCE

YBC 7287, a Babylonian mathematical tablet preserved at Yale, circa 1800-1600 B.C.E. (View Larger)

In contrast to the scarcity of original sources for Egyptian mathematics, preserved on the relatively fragile medium of papyrus, our knowledge of Babylonian mathematics is derived from several thousand extremely durable clay tablets written in Cuneiform script excavated since the beginning of the nineteenth century.  "The majority of recovered clay tablets date from 1800 to 1600 BC, and cover topics which include fractions, algebra, quadratic and cubic equations, the Pythagorean theorem, the calculation of Pythagorean triples and possibly trigonometric functions."

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Probably the Earliest Surviving Recipe for Making Beer Circa 1,800 BCE

Evidence for brewing beer in Mesopotamia dates back to 3500-3100 BCE at the Sumerian settlement of Godin Tepe, an archaeological site in western Iran In 1992, archaeologists discovered chemical traces of beer in a fragmented jar dating to the mid-fourth century BCE. The same site also yielded evidence for early wine-making.

The Hymn to Ninkasi, the ancient Sumerian matron goddess of beer and alcohol, is probably the earliest surviving recipe for making beer. It's date is estimated at 1800 BCE. It is believed that recording the recipe in song or poetry may have served as a mnemonic for a people that was primarily illiterate. An English translation of the Hymn from the University of Oxford Electronic Text Corpus (ETCSLtranslation: t.4.23.1) reads as follows: 

"A hymn to Ninkasi (Ninkasi A)

"1-4. Given birth by the flowing water ……, tenderly cared for by Ninḫursaĝa! Ninkasi, given birth by the flowing water ……, tenderly cared for by Ninḫursaĝa!

"5-8. Having founded your town upon wax, she completed its great walls for you. Ninkasi, having founded your town upon wax, she completed its great walls for you.

"9-12. Your father is Enki, Lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the abzu. Ninkasi, your father is Enki, Lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the abzu.

"13-16. It is you who handle the …… and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics. Ninkasi, it is you who handle the …… and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics.

"17-20. It is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain. Ninkasi, it is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain.

"21-24. It is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?). Ninkasi, it is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?).

"25-28. It is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall. Ninkasi, it is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall.

"29-32. It is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes ……. Ninkasi, it is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes …….

"33-36. It is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine. Ninkasi, it is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine.


"1 line fragmentary You …… the sweetwort to the vessel. Ninkasi, ……. You …… the sweetwort to the vessel.

"41-44. You place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat. Ninkasi, you place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat.

"45-48. It is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ninkasi, it is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates" (accessed 01-12-2013).

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Ancient Babylonian Algorithms: The Earliest Programs Circa 1,800 BCE – 1,600 BCE

In 1972 computer scientist and mathematician Donald E. Knuth published "Ancient Babylonian Algorithms," in which he provided the first English translations of various cuneiform mathematical tablets, with commentary. The tablets he studied ranged in date from 1800-1600 BCE. As a reflection of how comparatively little prestige computer science had as an academic subject at the time, Knuth began his paper with the statement:

"One of the ways to help make computer science respectable is to show that is deeply rooted in history, not just a short-lived phenomenon. Therefore it is natural to turn to the earliest surviving documents which deal with computation, and to study how people approached the subject nearly 4000 years ago."

From his paper I offer a few selections:

" 'Babylonian Programming'

"The Babylonian mathematicians were not limited simply to the processes of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division; they were adept at solving many types of algebraic equations. But they did not have an algebraic notation that is quite as transparent as ours; they represented each formula by a set-by-step list of rules for its evaluation, i.e. by an algorithm for computing that formula. In effect, they worked with a 'machine language' representation of formulas instead of a symbolic language.

"The flavor of Babylonian mathematics can best be appreciated by studying several examples. The translations below attempt to render the words of the original texts as faithfully as possible into good English, without extensive editorial interpretation. Several remarks have been added in parentheses, to explain some of the things that were originally unstated on the tables. All numbers are presented Babylonian-style, i.e. without exponents, so the reader is warned that he will have to supply an appropriate scale factor in his head; thus, it is necessary to remember that I might mean 60 and 15 might mean 1/4.

"The first example that we shall discuss is excerpted from an Old-Babylonian tablet which was originally about 5 x 8 x 1 inches in size. Half of it now appears in the British Museum, about one-fourth appears in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin, and the other fourth has apparently been lost or destroyed over the years....

" A (rectangular) cistern.
The height is 3,20, and a volume of 27, 46, 40 has been excavated.
The length exceeds the width by 50. (The object is to find the length and the width.)
You should take the reciprocal of the height, 3, 20, obtaining 18.
Multiply this by the volume, 27, 46, 40, obtaining 8, 20. (This is the length times the width; the problem has been reduced to finding x and y given that x - y = 50 and xy = 8, 20. A standard procedure for solving such equations, which occurs repeatedly in Babylonian manuscripts, is now used.)
Take half of 50 and square it, obtaining 10, 25.
Add 8, 20, and you get 8, 30, 25. (Remember that the radix point position always needs to be supplied. In this case, 50 stands for 5/6 and 8,20 stands for 8 1/2, taking into account the sizes of typical cisterns!)
The square root is 2, 55.
Makes two copies of this, adding (25) to the one and subtracting from the other.
You find that 3,20 (mainly 3 1/2) is the length and 2, 30 (namely 2 1/2) is the width.
This is the procedure.

" The first step here is to divide 27, 46, 40 by 3,20; this is reduced to muliplication by the reciprocal. The multiplication was done by referring to tables, probably by manipulating stones or sand in some manner and then writing down the answer. The square root was also computed by referring to tables, since we know that many tables of n vs. existed. Note that the rule for computing the values of x and y such that x - y =d and xy = p ≠ (d/2).

"The calculations described in Babylonian tablets are not merely the solutions to specific individual problems; they are actually general procedures for solving a whole class of problems. The numbers shown are merely included as an aid to exposition, in order to clarify the general method. This fact is clear because there are numerous instances where a particular case of the general method reduces to multiplying by 1; such a multiplication is explicity carried out, in order to abide by the general rules. Note also the stereotyped ending, 'This is the procedure,' which is commonly found at the end of each section on a table. Thus the Babylonian procedures are genuine algorithms, and we can commend the Babylonians for developing a nice way to explain an algorithm by example as the algorithm itself was being defined.... (pp. 672-73).

Knuth, Ancient Babylonian Algorithms, Communications of the ACM 15, no. 7 (July 1972) 671-77.

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The Code of Hammurabi Circa 1,760 BCE

The upper part of the stele containing the Code of Hammurabi. (View Larger)

The Code of Hammurabi  is the best-preserved ancient law code. It was enacted by the sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi, and inscribed on stelae displayed in temples around the Babylonian Empire. Of these only one example survives, inscribed on a seven foot, four inch tall basalt stone slab or stele, preserved in the Louvre.

"The stele containing the Code of Hammurabi was discovered in 1901 by the Egyptologist Gustav Jéquier, a member of the expedition headed by Jacques de Morgan. The stele was discovered in what is now Khūzestān, Iran (ancient Susa, Elam), where it had been taken as plunder by the Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte in the 12th century BC. . . .

"At the top of the stele is a bas-relief image of a Babylonian god (either Marduk or Shamash), with the king of Babylon presenting himself to the god, with his right hand raised to his mouth as a mark of respect.[1] The text covers the bottom portion with the laws written in Akkadian language cuneiform script. The text has been broken down by translators into 282 laws, but this division is arbitrary, since the original text contains no divisional markers" (Wikipedia article on Code of Hammurabi, accessed 02-04-2009).

The Code of Hammurabi applied to medical practice as it mentioned "fees payable to a physician following successful treatment; these varied according to the station of the patient. Similarly, the punishment for the failure of an operation is set out. At least this shows that in Babylon 4000 years ago the medical professional had advanced far enough in public esteeem to warrant the payment of adequate fees" (J. Norman [ed], Morton's Medical Bibliography 5th ed [1991] no. 1).

On 02-04-2009 I was able to access a special video and sound presentation in English on the Code of Hammurabi stele from the Louvre website at this link.

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The Earliest Surviving Recipes Circa 1,700 BCE

YBC 4644, one of three tablets in Yale's collection inscribed with ancient recipes.

We have a general knowledge of the foodstuffs that comprised the diets of the Egyptians, Hittites, Phoenicians, and Hebrews, but lack recipes from those ancient cultures.

Among Yale University’s collection of cuneiform tablets are three tablets, each containing a recipe collection—a total of 35 recipes. Composed in the middle of the Old Babylonian period, fhey are the world’s oldest cookbooks. The tablets were deciphered and translated by Jean Bottéro and Teresa Lavender Fagan in The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia (2004). The recipes are difficult to understand for several reasons:

"broken and damaged passages, obscure colloquial Akkadian, unknown vocabulary and technical language. In fact, some of the cooking ingredients are still completely unknown to us; and others, which have been identified, have passed from modern use, so we cannot appreciate what they really are. Add to this the fact that the cooking procedures are not precise, and neither cooking times nor quantities of ingredients are given, then one can appreciate the obstacle of reproducing the recipes accurately and faithfully. Nevertheless, the lack of specificity provides some leeway and leaves room for interpretation, without, hopefully, sacrificing authenticity.

"All of the recipes have one thing in common: every one of the finished dishes relies on combinations of meat, fowl, vegetables, or grain cooked in water. Cooking in water was an enormous innovation. From other kinds of evidence, we know that before this time entirely different cooking methods were used, like the use of radiant heat in an oven; indirect heat in hot ashes; and direct exposure to flame, as in broiling, grilling, or spit roasting. Cooking in liquid represented a giant step forward in terms of taste and sophistication. It created a richness and diversity of flavor that could not be achieved in the more ancient roasted, grilled, and broiled food" (http://homepage.mac.com/toke_knudsen/cuneiform_cuisine/Personal84.html, accessed 06-15-2009).

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The Rigveda Circa 1,700 BCE – 1,100 BCE

One of the oldest extant texts in any Indo-European language, the Rigveda (Rig Veda) (Sanskrit: ऋग्वेद ṛgveda, a compound of ṛc "praise, verse" and veda "knowledge"), an ancient Indian sacred collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns, was composed in the north-western region of the Indian subcontinent. 

"It is counted among the four canonical sacred texts (śruti) of Hinduism known as the Vedas. Some of its verses are still recited as Hindu prayers, at religious functions and other occasions, putting these among the world's oldest religious texts in continued use. The Rigveda contains several mythological and poetical accounts of the origin of the world, hymns praising the gods, and ancient prayers for life, prosperity, etc." (Wikipedia article on Rigveda, accessed 07-10-2011).

The date of composition of the Vedas is controversial. Some argue that the Rigveda was composed circa 3000 BCE, which would make it the oldest surviving literary work.

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“Accurate Reckoning for Inquiring into Things, and the Knowledge of All Things, Mysteries . . .All Secrets” Circa 1,650 BCE

The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus. (View Larger)

Dating from the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt, the Rhind Mathematial Papyrus is the most significant document of Egyptian mathematics. It was copied by the scribe Ahmes from a now-lost text from the reign of Amenemhat III (12th dynasty). The manuscript  is 33 cm tall and over 5 meters long, and is written in hieratic script. It is dated  Year 33 of the Hyksos king Apophis and also contains a separate later Year 11 on its verso likely from his successor, Khamudi.

"In the opening paragraphs of the papyrus, Ahmes presents the papyrus as giving 'Accurate reckoning for inquiring into things, and the knowledge of all things, mysteries...all secrets'."

Alexander Henry Rhind, a Scottish antiquarian, purchased the papyrus in 1858 in Luxor, Egypt.  It was apparently found during illegal excavations in or near the Ramesseum. The British Museum acquired it in 1864 along with the Egyptian Mathematical Leather Roll, also owned by Rhind.

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The Oldest Surgical Treatise Circa 1,600 BCE

The Edwin Smith Papyrus, the most detailed and sophisticated of the extant medical papyri, is the only surviving copy of part of an ancient Egyptian textbook on trauma surgery, and the world's oldest surgical treatise. Written in the hieratic script of the ancient Egyptian language,  it is based on material from a thousand years earlier. It consists of a list of 48 traumatic injury cases, with a description of the physical examination, treatment and prognosis of each. When the papyrus was discovered it was about 15 feet long in roll or scroll form.  In 1862 it was purchased in Luxor, Egypt by Edwin Smith, an American Egyptologist and collector and dealer in antiquities. Sometime in the 19th century it was cut into 17 columns. Coincidentally, Smith was born in Connecticut in 1822 – the same year Egyptian hieroglyphic was decoded by Champollion. After Smith's death in 1906 his daughter donated the papyrus to New York Historical Society. From 1938 through 1948, the papyrus was at the Brooklyn Museum. In 1948, the New York Historical Society and the Brooklyn Museum presented the papyrus to the New York Academy of Medicine, where it is preserved today. 

"The text begins by addressing injuries to the head, and continues with treatments for injuries to neck, arms and torso, where the text breaks off. Among the treatments are closing wounds with sutures (for wounds of the lip, throat, and shoulder), preventing and curing infection with honey and mouldy bread, and stopping bleeding with raw meat. Immobilisation was often advised for head and spinal cord injuries, which is still in practice today in the short-term treatment of some injuries. The use of magic for treatment is resorted to in only one case (Case 9).

"The papyrus also describes anatomical observations in exquisite detail. It contains the first known descriptions of the cranial sutures, the meninges, the external surface of the brain, the cerebrospinal fluid, and the intracranial pulsations. The papyrus shows that the heart, vessels, liver, spleen, kidneys, ureters and bladder were recognized, and that the blood vessels were known to be connected to the heart. Other vessels are described, some carrying air, some mucus, while two to the right ear are said to carry the breath of life, and two to the left ear the breath of death. The physiological functions of organs and vessels remained a complete mystery to the ancient Egyptians."

♦ You can scroll through a virtual scroll of the Edwin Smith papyrus on the website of the National Library of Medicine at http://archive.nlm.nih.gov/proj/ttp/flash/smith/smith.html. When you click on the text button on the site you see the new translation of that portion of the papyrus made by James P. Allen of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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The Largest Surviving Medical Treatise from Ancient Mesopotamia Circa 1,600 BCE

Sumerian medical tablet (2400 BC), ancient city of Nippur.  Lists 15 prescriptions used by a pharmacist.  Library of Ashurbanipal.

Because clay tablets, especially those baked in fires, were more durable than papyrus rolls, more original source material regarding medicine survived from Mesoptomia than from ancient Greece or Rome. Even though the amount of surviving medical textual information from Mesopotamia may be greater than what survived from Egypt, comparing the quantities of the two sources of ancient medical information is complicated since, in addition to the medical papyri which survived in the hospitable climate of Egypt, Egyptian mummies represent a unique source of paleopathological information that is not textual.

The surviving Mesopotamian medical records consist of roughly 1000 cuneiform tablets, of which 660 medical tablets from the library of Ashurbanipal are preserved in the British Museum. About 420 tablets from other sites also survived, including the library excavated from the private house of a medical practitioner (an asipu) from Neo-Assyrian Assur, and some Middle Assyrian and Middle Babylonia texts.

Most of these Mesopotamian medical tablets were not discovered until the nineteenth century, and because of difficulties with translation of cuneiform script, many of these tablets were not understood by scholars until recently. Another factor that must be taken into consideration is that since these tablets survived by unintended burial rather than by manuscript copying, and they were not preserved until comparatively recently in conventional libraries or museums, the medicine they record did not necessarily play a conventional role in the Western medical tradition. What influence their contents might have had on the practice of later physicians remains unclear.

The medical texts from Ashurbanipal's library were first published in facsimile by Reginald Campbell Thompson as Assyrian Medical Texts. From the Originals in the British Museum (1923). Franz Kocher later published six volumes called Die babylonisch-assyrische Medizin in Texten und Untersuchungen (1963-1980), the first four volumes of which contain the tablets found from sites other than Assurbanipal's library.

"The remaining two volumes of Kocher's work augment Campbell Thompson, providing new joins of broken fragments and much material uncovered in the British Museum. At least one more volume of Nineveh texts has been announced. In addition, the series Spaet Babylonische Texte aus Uruk contains some 30 medical texts not included in Kocher's work. The vast majority of these tablets are prescriptions, but there are a few series of tablets that contained entries that were directly related to one another, and these have been labeled 'treatises' " (Nancy Demand, The Asclepion, accessed 05-30-2009).

More recently the texts of many of the Mesopotamian medical tablets were translated and analyzed from the medical point of view by  Assyriologist/cuneiformist, JoAnn Scurlock and physician/medical historian Burton R. Anderson as Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine (2005).

•The largest surviving medical treatise from ancient Mesopotamia is known as the Treatise of Medical Diagnosis and Prognoses.

"The text of this treatise consists of 40 tablets collected and studied by the French scholar R. Labat. Although the oldest surviving copy of this treatise dates to around 1600 BCE, the information contained in the text is an amalgamation of several centuries of Mesopotamian medical knowledge. The diagnostic treatise is organized in head to toe order with separate subsections covering convulsive disorders, gynecology and pediatrics. It is unfortunate that the antiquated translations available at present to the non-specialist make ancient Mesopotamian medical texts sound like excerpts from a sorceror's handbook. In fact, as recent research is showing, the descriptions of diseases contained in the diagnostic treatise demonstrate a keen ability to observe and are usually astute. Virtually all expected diseases can be found described in parts of the diagnostic treatise, when those parts are fully preserved, as they are for neurology, fevers, worms and flukes, VD and skin lesions. The medical texts are, moreover, essentially rational, and some of the treatments, as for example those designed for excessive bleeding (where all the plants mentioned can be easily identified), are essentially the same as modern treatments for the same conditions" (Nancy Demand, The Aesclepion, accessed 05-30-2009).

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The Nebra Sky Disk 1,600 BCE

The Nebra Sky Disk. (View Larger)

The Nebra Sky Disk, attributed to a site near Nebra, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, is a bronze disk about 30 cm in diameter, with a blue-green patina inlaid with gold symbols which have generally been interpreted as a sun or full moon, a lunar crescent, and stars, including a cluster interpreted as the Pleiades. The disk is associated with Bronze Age Unetice Culture.

"Two golden arcs along the sides, making the angle between the solstices, were added later. A final addition was another arc at the bottom surrounded with multiple strokes (of uncertain meaning, variously interpreted as a Solar Barge with numerous oars, as the Milky Way or as a rainbow)" (Wikipedia article on Nebra sky disk, accessed 11-04-2010).

When it appeared on the antiquities market in 2001 the disk was widely suspected to be a forgery. Scientific research summarized in the Wikipedia article provided evidence for its authenticity that was widely accepted in 2010.

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The Most Extensive Record of Ancient Egyptian Medicine Circa 1,550 BCE

Papyrus Ebers (View Larger)

Written in Hieratic, the 110 page Papyrus Ebers is the most extensive surviving record of ancient Egyptian medicine.  "It contains many incantations meant to turn away disease-causing demons and there is also evidence of a long tradition of empirical practice and observation.

"The papyrus contains a treatise on the heart. It notes that the heart is the center of the blood supply, with vessels attached for every member of the body. The Egyptians seem to have known little about the kidneys and made the heart the meeting point of a number of vessels which carried all the fluids of the body — blood, tears, urine and sperm.

"Mental disorders are detailed in a chapter of the papyrus called the Book of Hearts. Disorders such as depression and dementia are covered. The descriptions of these disorders suggest that Egyptians conceived of mental and physical diseases in much the same way.

"The papyrus contains chapters on contraception, diagnosis of pregnancy and other gynaecological matters, intestinal disease and parasites, eye and skin problems, dentistry and the surgical treatment of abscesses and tumors, bone-setting and burns."

Edwin Smith, who also owned the Edwin Smith Papyrus, bought the Ebers Papyrus in 1862. It was said to have been found between the legs of a mummy in the Assassif district of the Theban necropolis. It remained in Smith's collection until at least 1869 when it was offered for sale in the catalog of an antiquities dealer, described as "a large medical papyrus in the possession of Edwin Smith, an American farmer of Luxor." It was purchased in 1872 by the German Egyptologist and novelist Georg Ebers, and is preserved in the University of Leipzig Library.

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Egyptian Scribal Palettes with Ink Wells and Brushes Circa 1,550 BCE – 1450

Two Egyptian scribal palettes preserved in the British Museum. (View Larger)

The Egyptian hieroglyphic sign for 'write' was formed from an image of the scribal palette and brush case. Statues of scribes are sometimes shown with a papyrus across their knees and a palette—the scribe's trademark—over one shoulder. Two examples of the scribal palettes are preserved in the British Museum (EA 12784, EA 5512).

"From the late Old Kingdom on, the basic palette was made of a rectangular piece of wood, with two cavities at one end to hold cakes of black and red ink. Carbon was used to make the black ink and iron-rich red ochre to make the red. Both pigments were mixed with gum so that they congealed rather than turned to dust when they dried. The cakes of ink were moistened with a wet brush, rather like modern watercolours or Chinese ink. Brush-pens were made of rushes, the tip cut at an angle and chewed to separate the fibres. These were kept in a slot in the middle of the palette.

"Black was the normal colour for writing. Red was used to mark the start of a text, or to highlight key words and phrases, like quantities in medicines, or for the names of demons in religious papyri. More colours were needed for illustrations, such as those in the Book of the Dead" (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/t/two_scribal_palettes_with_ink.aspx, accessed 07-11-2009).

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In Ancient Egypt Only the "Book of the Dead" Papyri Were Commercially Produced Circa 1,550 BCE – 50 BCE

Detail from the Papyrus of Ani, showing Ani and his wife entering at left.  Please click to see complete image.

Detail of image showing cursive hieroglyphs.  Please click to see complete image.

Detail from plate 6 showing the name "Ani, The Scribe." Please click to view entire image.

Detail from plate 12 showing the name "Ani, The Scribe" in a different hand.  Please click to view entire image.

It is doubtful whether any book trade, as we understand the term, existed in ancient Egypt because literacy was limited to an elite group, chiefly scribes and priests. Instead information was transmitted by oral tradition or proclamation. It is believed that a small number of literate people may have personally copied texts that they needed. Only copies of the Book of the Dead, a funerary text used from the beginning of the New Kingdom, around 1550 BCE to around 50 BCE, were written for sale.  Some copies of this work have the place for the name left blank, to be filled in later.  Close study shows that the name of the owner was sometimes written in by a later scribe with different handwriting, suggesting that these funeral papyri were maintained in inventory before sale.  It is thought that illiterate people also wanted to possess the Book of the Dead, which guaranteed protection against the dangers of the afterlife, in order to add it to their tomb furnishings.

"A Book of the Dead papyrus was produced to order by scribes. They were commissioned by people in preparation for their own funeral, or by the relatives of someone recently deceased. They were expensive items; one source gives the price of a Book of the Dead scroll as one deben of silver, perhaps half the annual pay of a labourer. Papyrus itself was evidently costly, as there are many instances of its re-use in everyday documents, creating palimpsests. In one case, a Book of the Dead was written on second-hand papyrus.

"Most owners of the Book of the Dead were evidently part of the social elite; they were initially reserved for the royal family, but later papyri are found in the tombs of scribes, priests and officials. Most owners were men, and generally the vignettes included the owner's wife as well. Towards the beginning of the history of the Book of the Dead, there are roughly 10 copies belonging to men for every one for a woman. However, during the Third Intermediate Period, 2/3 were for women; and women owned roughly a third of the hieratic paypri from the Late and Ptolemaic Periods.

"The dimensions of a Book of the Dead could vary widely; the longest is 40m long while some are as short as 1m. They are composed of sheets of papyrus joined together, the individual papyri varying in width from 15 cm to 45 cm. The scribes working on Book of the Dead papyri took more care over their work than those working on more mundane texts; care was taken to frame the text within margins, and to avoid writing on the joints between sheets. The words peret em heru, or 'coming forth by day' sometimes appear on the reverse of the outer margin, perhaps acting as a label.

"Books were often prefabricated in funerary workshops, with spaces being left for the name of the deceased to be written in later. For instance, in the Papyrus of Ani, the name "Ani" appears at the top or bottom of a column, or immediately following a rubric introducing him as the speaker of a block of text; the name appears in a different handwriting to the rest of the manuscript, and in some places is mis-spelt or omitted entirely.

"The text of a New Kingdom Book of the Dead was typically written in cursive hieroglyphs, most often from left to right, but also sometimes from right to left. The hieroglyphs were in columns, which were separated by black lines - a similar arrangement to that used when hieroglyphs were carved on tomb walls or monuments. Illustrations were put in frames above, below, or between the columns of text. The largest illustrations took up a full page of papyrus.

"From the 21st Dynasty onward, more copies of the Book of the Dead are found in hieratic script. The calligraphy is similar to that of other hieratic manuscripts of the New Kingdom; the text is written in horizontal lines across wide columns (often the column size corresponds to the size of the papyrus sheets of which a scroll is made up). Occasionally a hieratic Book of the Dead contains captions in hieroglyphic.

"The text of a Book of the Dead was written in both black and red ink, regardless of whether it was in hieroglyphic or hieratic script. Most of the text was in black, with red used for the titles of spells, opening and closing sections of spells, the instructions to perform spells correctly in rituals, and also for the names of dangerous creatures such as the demon Apep. The black ink used was based on carbon, and the red ink on ochre, in both cases mixed with water.

"The style and nature of the vignettes used to illustrate a Book of the Dead varies widely. Some contain lavish colour illustrations, even making use of gold leaf. Others contain only line drawings, or one simple illustration at the opening. Book of the Dead papyri were often the work of several different scribes and artists whose work was literally pasted together. It is usually possible to identify the style of more than one scribe used on a given manuscript, even when the manuscript is a shorter one. The text and illustrations were produced by different scribes; there are a number of Books where the text was completed but the illustrations were left empty" (Wikipedia article on Book of the Dead, accessed 05-06-2012).


In 1842 Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius named this class of papyrus when he edited papyrus Turin 1791 as an exemplar, and had it published in Leipzig in 1842 as Das Todtenbuch der Ägypter nach dem hieroglyphischen Papyrus in Turin mit einem Vorworte zum ersten Male Herausgegeben. This was the first printed edition of The Book of the Dead. The modern numbering of the Book of the Dead spells (BD 1-165) is derived from Lepsius's edition of this papyrus.

(This entry was last revised on April 4, 2014.) 

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How the Inca Quipu System of Mathematical Record-Keeping Worked Circa 1,500 BCE – 1912

In 1912 anthropologist Leslie Leland Locke published "The Ancient Quipu, A Peruvian Knot Record," American Anthropologist, New Series I4 (1912) 325-332. This was the first work to show how the Inca (Inka) Empire and its predecessor societies used the quipu (Khipu) for mathematical and accounting records in the decimal system. Locke stated his conclusions as follows:

"1. These knots were used purely for numerical purposes.

"2. Distances from the main cord were used roughly to locate the orders, which were on a decimal scale.

"3. The quipu was not used for counting or calculating but for record keeping. The mode of tying the knots was not adapted to counting, and there was no need of its use for such a purpose, as the Quichua language contained a complete and adequate system of numeration.

"4. Other specimens examined contain the same types of knots there being but ten variations in all, two forms for the single knot and eight long knots. These eight differ from each other and from the single knot only in the number of turns taken in tying. There is nothing about any specimen examined to give the slightest suggesion that it was used for any other than numerical purposes.

"5. If the hypothesis that this quipu is a record of the same classes of objects be correct, it would seem to indicate the colors in this case have no special significance, but were taken according to the fancy or convenience of the maker. This does not signify that there was not a rough color scheme in sue for some purposes.

"6. These specimens confirm in a remarkable way the accuracy with which [the Inca] Garcilasso [de la Vega] described the manners and customs of his people."

In 1923 Locke published an expanded version of his research in a monograph entitled The Ancient Quipu or Peruvian Knot Record.

According to "The "Storage Engine" website of the Computer History Museum, the quipu numerical record keeping system was in use by the Tiwanaku people, precursors of the Incas, perhaps as early as 1500 BCE:

"The Tiwanaku people lived in the Andes Mountains of South America around Lake Titicaca in today’s Bolivia from circa 1500 BCE until circa 1200 CE. Evidence suggests a sophisticated culture adept at astronomical timekeeping, architecture, agriculture, and social order. Shards of Tiwanaku pottery dated to around 400 CE bear artwork depicting a tribal elder or shaman with his arm extended horizontally. A series of knotted strings that today is known as a quipu dangles from the arm. Predating the Tiwanaku society, archeologists discovered the oldest known quipu made about 4,600 years ago at Caral on the Peruvian coast.

"The Inca civilization that emerged in the region in the 13th century adopted the quipu to record and transmit tax records, census data and other information across the great distances of the Inca Empire. “Quipu” means “knot” in the Peruvian Quechua language. Europeans learned of the quipu when Spanish colonizers arrived in the Inca capital of Cuzco in 1532. Suspicious of the purpose of these assemblies of knotted, colored cotton and wool cords, the conquistadors destroyed most of them. Less than 300 remain."

The first Spanish historian of Peruvian culture, conquistador Pedro Cieza de Léon, wrote in Parte Primera dela Crónica del Perú (1553) that “Each ruler of a province was provided with accountants, and by these knots they kept account of what tribute was to be paid … and with such accuracy that not so much as pair of sandals was missing.” However, the exact way that quipu were used was not understood until Locke's work in the 20th century.

Research on this topic was further advanced by mathematician Marcia Ascher and anthropologist Robert Ascher in Code of the Quipu. A Study of Media, Mathematics, and Culture (1981).

(This entry was last revised on 11-27-2015.)

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A Wooden Writing Board Containing Text of the Words of Khakheperresoneb Circa 1,500 BCE

EA 5645 of the British Museum: the Words of Khakheperresoneb written on a wooden writing board. (View Larger)

In addition to papyrus, wood was used as a writing medium in the ancient world, though far fewer examples have survived than writing on papyrus, clay, or stone. An example of an ancient Egyptian wooden writing board is that containing text of the words of Khakheperresoneb preserved in the British Museum (EA 5645).

"The main uses of writing boards in ancient Egypt included writing practice. This board is made from wood overlaid with gesso to provide a surface for writing, which could then be easily erased when required. Fortunately, this board was not erased, since it is the major source for one of the literary texts of the Middle Kingdom (2040-1750 BC): the Words of Khakheperresoneb.

"The name of the author, Khakheperresoneb, is based on one of the royal names of King Senwosret II of the Twelfth Dynasty (about 1844-1837 BC). This suggests that the original text was composed in the late Twelfth Dynasty some two hundred years earlier than this copy. It was common for works of literature that were considered to be classics to be repeatedly copied in their entirety or in sections in the New Kingdom (about 1550-1-70 BC). The small red dots in the text are termed 'verse points' and mark the ends of lines of verse" (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/w/wooden_writing_board_and_text.aspx, accessed 07-11-2009).

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The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions, the Earliest Evidence for Alphabetic Writing Circa 1,500 BCE

The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, first discovered at Serabit el-Khadem (Serabit el-Khadim), an ancient Egyptian turquoise mining site in the Sinai Peninsula, by W. M. Flinders Petrie in 1905, and supplemented by additional finds in subsequent decades, represent the earliest evidence for alphabetic writing. They consist of linear pictographic symbols inscribed on statuettes, stone panels, and rock faces. In the 1994-95 John Coleman Darnell and Deborah Darnell, who started searching along caravan trails in the Western Desert west of Luxor in the Theban Desert Road Survey, discovered two single-line rock inscriptions at Wadi el-Hol, near Thebes in Upper Egypt. Those inscriptions are written in a script that closely resembles the Proto-Sinaitic texts from Serabit el-Khadem. 

Joseph Lam, "The Invention and Development of the Alphabet," IN: Wood (ed) Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond (2010) 189-95, illustrating one of the inscriptions as No. 89 on p. 196.

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Survey of Ancient Libraries and Archives in the Near East 1,500 BCE – 300 BCE

Olof Pedersén, Archives and Libraries in the Ancient Near East 1500-300 B.C. (1998), remains the most comprehensive survey of the earliest western archives and libraries that I have seen, as of February 2013. It contains numerous schematic diagrams of ancient building layouts on which it identifies the location of each library or archive found. With a few exceptions, it does not discuss or attempt to summarize the contents of any archive or library covered.

1. Pedersén's study describes 253 archives and libraries from 51 different cities, of which 125 archives and libraries date from 1500-1000 BCE and 128 to 1000-300 BCE. "Since many of the very early excavations did not properly document the find-spots of tablets, it is probable that some additional archives or libraries from this period have been unearthed. . . ." (p. 238)

2. "Most of the cities or towns where archives or libraries have been unearthed were cities of medium or major size. Only rarely has material been found in smaller towns. . . ; it is unclear whether this is due to lack of written documentation in rural areas or only a consequence of a limited number of excavations of smaller settlements.

3. "Several of the archives and libraries, expecially the larger ones, were apparently placed upon wooden shelves. Evidence of wooden shelves is proposed to exist for a limited number of official archives (Tapigga 1, Harbe1), and has been assumed elsewhere (e.g., Nineveh 2). There is, however, a lack of evidence in many sites indicating the use of wooden shelves, probably due to the perishable nature of wood and a lack of sounder achaeological methodology during the earlier excavations. Sometimes the shelves were constructed of brick or designed as niches in the walls. Such imperishable shelves have been preserved in the some libraries  (Dur-Sarrukin 1 and 2, Sippar 2). The temple library in Sippar is the oldest library in history found with literary texts still standing in their original position on the shelves" (p. 244).

4. "The largest archives and libraries consist of between 1,000 and 30,000 texts. There are at least 16, perhaps even 21, archives or libraries of such size. They represent six or eight percent of the total number of 253 archives and libraries discussed here. The largest archive is the Neo-Babylonian administrative archive from the Samas temple (Sippar 1), comprising about 30,000 texts." (pp. 244-45).

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One of the Earliest Known Examples of Writing in Europe Circa 1,490 BCE – 1,390 BCE

On April 2, 2011 Michael Cosmopoulos of the University of Missouri-St. Louis reported the discovery at Ilaina, Greece of a clay tablet written in Linear B script. This tablet, 2 x 3 inches in size, was preserved when someone discarded it in a trash pit, burned the trash, and inadvertently fired the clay. 

When the tablet was discovered it was the one of the earliest examples of writing found on the mainland of Europe.

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Wooden Drawing Board with a figure of Thutmose III Circa 1,450 BCE

An ancient Egyptian wooden drawing board inscribed with a picture of Thutmose III. It is preserved in the British Library as EA 5645. (View Larger)

A wooden drawing board from ancient Egypt with a figure of Thutmose III, preserved in the British Museum (EA 5601), documents how Egyptian artists used various media for practicing or creating their designs.

"The most common [surviving examples] are ostraka (flakes of stone or potsherds used as drawing or writing pads), but several wooden drawing boards have survived. The surface was coated with gesso and then smoothed; it could then be cleaned and reused. The figure of Thutmose III on this board was perhaps a preliminary drawing that was later to be transferred to a tomb or temple wall, while the other drawings were presumably practice hieroglyphs.

"This object is significant because the design has been laid out on a grid. From the Old Kingdom (about 2613-2160 BC) onwards, a system of guidelines, later developed into a squared grid, was used to ensure the correct proportions of the figures. Before the Late Period, standing figures were generally laid out on a vertical grid of eighteen squares measured to the figure's hairline, and seated figures on one of fourteen. The horizontal lap of the seated figure accounts for the missing four squares. Grids were drawn onto the walls and even onto the stone of statues. When the scene was finished the lines were either cut away or painted out. Hence unfinished walls and practice sketches where the grid remains intact, like this one, are of immense value" (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/w/wooden_drawing_board_with_a_fi.aspx, accessed 07-11-2009).

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Linear B and its Decipherment: Records of Mycenaean Civilization Circa 1,450 BCE – 1953

"Before the advent of the Greek alphabet, the written records of Mainland Greece, Crete, and Cyprus were recorded using a family of five related scripts. The earliest of these was Cretan Hieroglyphic, devised by the Minoans on Crete at the end of the 3rd millennium BCE; their later script, Linear A, is based on Cretan Hieroglyphic. Linear A in turn served as the model for two more scripts near the end of the Bronze Age: Cypro-Minoan, the script of the pre-Greek inhabitants of Cyprus; and Linear B, the script of the Mycenaeans, used for writing Mycenaean Greek. Finally, in the early Iron Age, the Greek-speaking peoples of Cyprus used Cypro-Minoan as the model for a new script, the Cypriot Syllabary, and employed it to write in their own dialect of Greek" (Brent Davis, Introduction to the Aegean Pre-Alphabetic Scripts [2010]).

About 1450 BCE, during or shortly after the period in which Cypro-Minoan was created on Cyprus, the Mycenaeans devised their own script based on the still undeciphered script known today as Linear A, and began using it to create administrative records. This syllabic script, different from Linear A, and first found in the discovery of Knossos on Crete in 1878, was called Linear B by archaeologist Arthur Evans

"Mycenaean artifacts have been found well outside the limits of the Mycenaean world: namely Mycenaean swords are known from as far away as Georgia in the Caucasus, an amber object inscribed with Linear B symbols has been found in BavariaGermany and Mycenaean bronze double axes and other objects dating from the 13th century BC have been found in Ireland and in Wessex and Cornwall in England" (Wikipedia article on Mycenaean Greece, accessed 10-13-2014).

During 1952 and 1953 English architect and classical scholar Michael Ventris deciphered Linear B without the aid of a bilingual document—the use of which was so instrumental in the decipherment of other ancient languages such as PhoenicianEgyptian hieroglyphs and cuneiform script. Ventris's remarkable achievement proved that Linear B is an early form of Greek (Mycenaean Greek) used from about 1450 to 1200 BCE.

During the Bronze Age Collapse, from circa 1200-1150 BCE Linear B, found mainly in the palace archives  at Knossos, Cydonia, Pylos, Thebes and Mycenae, disappeared with the fall of Mycenaean  civilization. The succeeding period, known as the Greek Dark Ages, left no evidence of the use of writing. With the collapse of the palatial centers at Knossos and elsewhere—one possible but no longer widely accepted explanation for which was the eruption of the volcano on the island of Thera (Santorini)—no more monumental stone buildings were built and the practice of wall painting may have ceased. Writing in Linear B also ceased, vital trade links were lost, and towns and villages were abandoned. The population of Greece was reduced, and the world of organized state armies, kings, officials, and redistributive economies disappeared. Most of the information concerning the Greek Dark Ages comes from burial sites and artifacts contained within the graves. To what extent the earliest Greek literary sources, the Iliad and Odyssey— products of the oral tradition— and Hesiod's Works and Days written after writing was reintroduced to Greece, describe life in the Greek Dark Ages or earlier remains an issue debated by scholars.

Ventris & Chadwick, Documents in Mycenaean Greek (1956), chapters 1-2. Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B (1958).

In February 2014 a very useful anonymous illustrated historical summary of "The Decipherment Process" was available from the classics department at the University of Cambridge at this link. The latest bibliographical reference in this PDF was dated 2013.

In 2013 attention was drawn to the work of the American classicist Alice Kober, who worked for years on the decipherment of Linear B, but died of lung cancer in 1950 at the early age of 43. It was suggested that Ventris may have been assisted in his discovery by work done by Kober. 

(This entry was last revised on October 13, 2014.)

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The Proto-Canaanite Alphabet 1,450 BCE – 1,050 BCE

The Ostracon from ‘Izbet Sartah (1200–1000 BCE) showing characters of the Proto-Canaanite alphabet.

"The Proto-Canaanite alphabet is a consonantal alphabet of twenty-two acrophonic glyphs, found in Levantine texts of the Late Bronze Age (from ca. the 15th century BC), by convention taken to last until a cut-off date of 1050 BC, after which it is called Phoenician. About a dozen incriptions written in Proto-Canaanite have been discovered in modern-day Israel and Lebanon.

"While a descendant script from the Egyptian hieroglyphs, it is also the parent script of Phoenician, itself the ancestor of nearly every alphabet in use today, from Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Roman, and Berber in the West to Thai, Mongol, and perhaps Hangul in the East. The Hebrew alphabet remains the closest to its predecessor, as only the form of the letters has been modified—unsurprising, since Hebrew is a Canaanite language and had, in its original pronunciation, roughly the same set of consonants as the dialect that the alphabet was devised for."

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The Oldest Surviving Water Clock or Clepsydra 1,417 BCE – 1,379 BCE

Water clocks, along with sundials, are, with the exception of the vertical gnomon and the day-counting tally stick, the oldest time-measuring instruments. Where and when water clocks were first invented is not known. Until the development of the pendulum clock (1656), water clocks were the most accurate timekeeping devices.

"The oldest water clock of which there is physical evidence dates to c. 1417-1379 BC, during the reign of Amenhotep III where it was used in the Temple of Amen-Re at Karnak. The oldest documentation of the water clock is the tomb inscription of the 16th century BC Egyptian court official Amenemhet, which identifies him as its inventor. These simple water clocks, which were of the outflow type, were stone vessels with sloping sides that allowed water to drip at a nearly constant rate from a small hole near the bottom. There were twelve separate columns with consistently spaced markings on the inside to measure the passage of "hours" as the water level reached them. The columns were for each of the twelve months to allow for the variations of the seasonal hours. These clocks were used by priests to determine the time at night so that the temple rites and sacrifices could be performed at the correct hour. These clocks may have been used in daylight as well" (Wikipedia article on water clock, accessed 12-25-2011).

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The Earliest Surviving Detailed Bibliographical Entries Circa 1,400 BCE

Collection catalogue tablet from the Hattusas Palace Archives. Hattusa, Turkey


Cuneiform tablets discovered at Hattusas (Hattusa), capital of the Hittite Empire in the Bronze Age, near modern Boğazkale, Turkey, contain detailed bibliographical entries.

"Each entry begins by giving the number of tablets that made up the work being recorded, just as modern catalogues give the number of volumes in a mult-volume publication. The entry identifies the work itself by giving the title, which may take the form of citing its first line, or by giving a capsule description of the contents. Then it tells whether the table marked the end of the work or not. At times the entry includes the name of the author or authors, or adds other useful information. . . . 

"In addition to noting missing tablets, the entries now and then provide information about shelving. There is an entry, for example, which in listing a work that happens to be in two tablets notes that 'they do not stand upright'; presumably, in the part of the palace holdings represented by this catalogue, most tablets were stored on edge while these two, exceptionally, lay flat. . . . The catalogue, it would seem, was of one particular collection that, to judge from the contents, was for use by the palace clergy. It would have been an invaluable tool: any priest who needed a ritual for a given problem, instead of picking up tablet after tablet to read the colophon if there was one, or some lines of text if there was not, had only to run an eye over the entries in the catalogue. It was a limited tool; the order of the entries is more or less haphazard (alphabetization, for example, lay over a millennium and a half in the future) and they give no indication of location. But it was, no question about it, a significant step beyond the simple listing of titles of the Nippur tablets. 

"The finds at Hattusas, in short, reveal the development of procedures for organizing a collection of writings. The palace holdings were certainly extensive enough to require them; the catalogue alone, representing as we have seen, just the clergy's working library, lists well over one hundred titles. . . ." (Casson, Libraries in the Ancient World [2001] 5-8).

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The Earliest Bookplates, or Ex-Libris 1,391 BCE – 1,353 BCE

The earliest recorded bookplates or ex-libris are small enameled ceramic plaques representing the ownership of pharaoh Amenhotep III (Amenophis III) and Queen Tiy (Teie), dating from 1391 to 1353 BCE, probably excavated from Amarna. One example with dark blue text on light blue enamel is in the British Museum (EA 22878. 62mm. x 38mm., 4.5 mm. thick. The hieroglyphs measure 7mm. in height on average.) Another example (incomplete) is at Yale (YUG 1936.100. The size is identical to the bottom part of the BM plaque; the color is said to be the same. See G. Scott, Ancient Egyptian Art at Yale.) A different plaque is in the Louvre (E 3043. 43 mm. x 20.4 mm.)

"Substantial analysis of the British Museum plaque was first carried out by both British and German archaeologists in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but the definitive study is by H. R. Hall, published in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology eighty years ago. The text in the upper part of the plaque, with the two royal cartouches, reads 'The Good God, Nimba-at-Re, given life, beloved of Ptah, king of the two lands, and the king's wife Teie, living'. There was substantial discussion as to the text at the bottom of the tablet (which is absent in the Louvre plaque) and Hall gives good argumentation that is reads 'Book of the Sycomore and the Olive'. At the top of the plaque, within the thickness of the pottery, there is a hole for passing a wire; it would seem that it was fixed with either to a papyrus directly, or perhaps to a box containing a papyrus or a cuneiform tablet. The latter seems a distinct possibility, as there are many heroic legends about trees in Assyrian literature" (Benoit Junod, Origins and early days of ex-libris, http://www.fisae.org/originstxt.htm, accessed 05-06-2012). 

H. R. Hall, "An Egyptian royal bookplate: the ex-libris of Amenophis III and Teie," Journal of Egyptian Archaeology XII (1926), 30-33, plate XI.

Hussein, Origins of the Book. Egypt's contribution to the development of the book from the papyrus to codex (1970) 24, plate 44.

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The Uluburun Shipwreck 1,375 BCE

The Uluburun shipwreck, a Late Bronze Age shipwreck discovered off Uluburun (Grand Cape) about 6 miles southeast of Kas in south-western Turkey, contained one of the most extensive surviving cargos excavated from the Mediterranean sea. As a result of 22,413 dives from 1984 to 1994 a multitude of items of raw material used in trade were excavated. Prior to the discovery of this shipwreck most of these items had been known primarily from ancient texts or Egyptian tomb paintings. The cargo matches many of the royal gifts listed in the Amarna letters.

The cargo, preserved in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Bodrum Castle, Bodrum, Turkey, included the following:

"♦ Copper and tin ingots

Raw copper cargo totaling ten tons, consisting of a total of 354 ingots of the oxhide (rectangular with handholds extending from each corner) type. Out of the total amount of ingots at least 31 unique two-handled ingots were identified that were most likely shaped this way to assist the process of loading ingots onto specially designed saddles or harnesses for ease of transport over long distances by pack animals. 121 copper bun and oval ingots. The oxhide ingots were originally stowed in 4 distinct rows across the ship’s hold, which either slipped down the slope after the ship sank or shifted as the hull settled under the weight of the cargo. Approximately one ton of tin (when alloyed with the copper would make about 11 tons of bronze). Tin ingots were oxhide and bun shaped.

"♦ Canaanite jars and Pistacia resin

At least 149 Canaanite jars (widely found in Greece, Cyprus, Syria-Palestine, and Egypt). Jars are categorized as the northern type and were most likely made somewhere in the northern part of modern-day Israel. One jar filled with glass beads, many filled with olives, but the majority contained a substance known as Pistacia (terebinth) resin. Recent clay fabric analyses of Canaanite jar sherds from the 18th-Dynasty site of Tell el-Amarna have produced a specific clay fabric designation, and it is seemingly the same as that from the Uluburun shipwreck, of a type that is exclusively associated in Amarna with transporting Pistacia resin.

"♦ Glass ingots

Approximately 175 glass ingots of cobalt blue turquoise and lavender were found (earliest intact glass ingots known). Chemical composition of cobalt blue glass ingots matches those of contemporary Egyptian core-formed vessels and Mycenaean pendant beads, which suggests a common source.

"♦ Miscellaneous cargo

Logs of blackwood from Africa (referred to as ebony by the Egyptians), Ivory in the form of whole and partial elephant tusks, More than a dozen hippopotamus teeth Tortoise carapaces (upper shells), Murex opercula (possible ingredient for incense),Ostrich eggshells, Cypriot pottery, Cypriot oil lamps. Bronze and copper vessels (four faience drinking cups shaped as rams’ heads and one shaped as a woman’s head), Two duck-shaped ivory cosmetics boxes, Ivory cosmetics or unguent spoon, Trumpet, More than two dozen sea-shell rings, Beads of amber (Baltic origin), Agate, Carnelian, Quartz, Gold, Faience, Glass

"♦ Jewelry, gold, and silver

Collection of usable and scrap gold and silver Canaanite jewelry. Among the 37 gold pieces are: pectorals, medallions, pendants, beads, a small ring ingot, and an assortment of fragments. Biconical chalice (largest gold object from wreck). Egyptian objects of gold, electrum, silver, and steatite (soap stone). Gold scarab inscribed with the name of Nefertiti. Bronze female figurine (head, neck, hands, and feet covered in sheet gold).

"♦ Weapons and tools

Arrowheads, Spearheads, Maces, Daggers, Lugged shaft-hole axe, A single armor scale of Near Eastern type, Four swords (Canaanite, Mycenaean, and Italian(?) types), Large number of tools: sickles, awls, drill bits, a saw, a pair of tongs, chisels, axes, a ploughshare, whetstones, and adzes.

"♦ Pan-balance weights

19 zoomorphic weights (Uluburun weight assemblage is one of the largest and most complete groups of contemporaneous Late Bronze Age weights) 120 geometric-shaped weights

"♦ Foodstuffs

Almonds, Pine nuts, Figs, Olives, Grapes, Safflower, Black cumin,  Sumac, Corianderm Whole pomegranates, A few grains of charred wheat and barley" (Wikipedia article on Uluburn shipwreck, accessed 01-12-2012).

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Archive of Egyptian Diplomatic Correspondence Written in the Diplomatic Language, Akkadian Cuneiform Circa 1,360 BCE – 1,330 BCE

ME E29785 of the British Museum: A letter from Burnaburiash, a king of the Kassite dynasty of Babylonia, to Amenhotep IV. The tablet is one of the Amarna Letters. (View Larger)

The Amarna Letters, or Correspondence, an archive of mostly diplomatic correspondence between the Egyptian administration and its representatives in Canaan and Amurru during the New Kingdom, written on clay tablets, was found around 1887 in Upper Egypt at Amarna, the modern name for the Egyptian capital of Akhetaten (Akhetaton), founded by pharaoh Akhenaten (Akhnaton), during the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt.  

"The Amarna letters are unusual in Egyptological research, being mostly written in Akkadian cuneiform, the writing system of ancient Mesopotamia rather than ancient Egypt. The known tablets currently total 382 in number, 24 further tablets having been recovered since the Norwegian Assyriologist Jørgen Alexander Knudtzon's landmark edition of the Amarna correspondence, Die El-Amarna-Tafeln in two volumes (1907 and 1915).

"These letters, consisting of cuneiform tablets mostly written in Akkadian – the regional language of diplomacy for this period – were first discovered by local Egyptians around 1887, who secretly dug most of them from the ruined city (they were originally stored in an ancient building archaeologists have since called the Bureau of Correspondence of Pharaoh) and then sold them on the antiquities market. Once the location where they were found was determined, the ruins were explored for more. The first archaeologist who successfully recovered more tablets was William Flinders Petrie in 1891–92, who found 21 fragments. Émile Chassinat, then director of the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo, acquired two more tablets in 1903. Since Knudtzon's edition, some 24 more tablets, or fragments of tablets, have been found, either in Egypt, or identified in the collections of various museums.

"The tablets originally recovered by local Egyptians have been scattered among museums in Cairo, Europe and the United States: 202 or 203 are at the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin; 80 in the British Museum; 49 or 50 at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo; seven at the Louvre; 3 at the Pushkin Museum; and 1 is currently in the collection of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

"The full archive, which includes correspondence from the preceding reign of Amenhotep III as well, contained over three hundred diplomatic letters; the remainder are a miscellany of literary or educational materials. These tablets shed much light on Egyptian relations with Babylonia, Assyria, the Mitanni, the Hittites, Syria, Canaan, and Alashiya (Cyprus). They are important for establishing both the history and chronology of the period. Letters from the Babylonian king Kadashman-Enlil I anchor the timeframe of Akhenaten's reign to the mid-14th century BC. Here was also found the first mention of a Near Eastern group known as the Habiru, whose possible connection with the Hebrews remains debated. Other rulers include Tushratta of Mittani, Lib'ayu of Shehchem, Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem and the quarrelsome king Rib-Hadda of Byblos, who in over 58 letters continuously pleads for Egyptian military help" (Wikipedia article on Amarna letters, accessed 09-01-2009).

In July 2014 digital facsimiles and transliterations of the Amarna tablets in the Vorderasiatisches Museum were available from CDLI (Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative) at this link.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh, Probable Source of Aspects of Biblical and Homeric Literature Circa 1,300 BCE – 1,000 BCE

One of the twelve tablets--of the 1200 discovered by Austen Henry Layard in Ninveh--upon which the Epic of Gilgamesh was recorded. (View larger)

The most complete and "standard" Akkadian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known works of literary fiction, was written in standard Babylonian, a dialect of Akkadian that was only used for literary purposes, and compiled out of older legends by the Mesopotamian incantation/exorcist priest Sîn-lēqi-unninni, sometime between 1300 and 1000 BCE. Various themes, plot elements, and characters in the Epic of Gilgamesh have counterparts in the book of Genesis, notably the accounts of the Garden of Eden and Noah's Flood.

"Gilgamesh, we can be sure, was a real man. he was an early king of Uruk who founded a short-lived dynasty at the beginning of the historical period. All the surviving literary traditions about Gilgamesh point to a figure of power and charisma that long-outlasted his own lifetime. The cycle of stories that came to circulate about his name testify to this, and the impression that he was a man out of the same box as Alexander the Great, the impact of whose death led to narratives far beyond the sober scope of the historians who first tackled his life and times" (Irving Finkel, The Ark Before Noah. Decoding the Story of the Flood [2014] 82).

The standard version of the epic was recorded on twelve cuneiform tablets, of which the ark story appeared in tablet 11. These were discovered in 1853 by the Assyrian and Christian Assyriologist Hormuzd Rassam in the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. Rassam, the protegé of British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, who had accompanied Layard in his second expedition to iraq from 1849 to 1851, discovered the tablets after Layard left archaeology and began a political career. The deciphering of the twelve tablets in 1872 by George Smith at the British Museum, where the tablets are preserved, caused this epic to be rediscovered by the world. Smith's first published account of the tablets appeared in Chaldean Account of the Deluge. Terra Cotta Tablets Found at Nineveh, and Now in the British Museum. Two Photographs. Translation and Text by Geo. Smith. . . , Photographed by Stephen Thompson, London: Mansell, 1872.

"The parallels between the stories of Enkidu/Shamhat and Adam/Eve have been long recognized by scholars. In both, a man is created from the soil by a god, and lives in a natural setting amongst the animals. He is introduced to a woman who tempts him. In both stories the man accepts food from the woman, covers his nakedness, and must leave his former realm, unable to return. The presence of a snake that steals a plant of immortality from the hero later in the epic is another point of similarity.

"Andrew R. George submits that the flood myth in Genesis 6–8 matches that in Gilgamesh so closely that 'few doubt' that it derives from a Mesopotamian account. What is particularly noticeable is the way the Genesis flood story follows the Gilgamesh flood tale "point by point and in the same order", even when the story permits other alternatives.

"In a 2001 Torah commentary released on behalf of the Conservative Movement of Judaism, rabbinic scholar Robert Wexler stated: 'The most likely assumption we can make is that both Genesis and Gilgamesh drew their material from a common tradition about the flood that existed in Mesopotamia. These stories then diverged in the retelling.'

"Matthias Henze suggests that Nebuchadnezzar's madness in the biblical Book of Daniel draws on the Epic of Gilgamesh. He claims that the author uses elements from the description of Enkidu to paint a sarcastic and mocking portrait of the king of Babylon.[22]

"Many scholars note an influence on the book of Ecclesiastes.The speech of Sidhuri in an old Babylonian version of the epic is so similar to Ecclesiastes 9:7–10 that direct influence is a possibility. A rare proverb about the strength of a triple-stranded rope is common to both books.

"Numerous scholars have drawn attention to various themes, episodes, and verses, that indicate a substantial influence of the Epic of Gilgamesh on both of the epic poems ascribed to Homer. These influences are detailed by Martin Litchfield West in The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. According to Tzvi Abusch of Brandeis University, the novel "combines the power and tragedy of the Iliad with the wanderings and marvels of the Odyssey. It is a work of adventure, but is no less a meditation on some fundamental issues of human existence" (Wikipedia article on Epic of Gilgamesh, accessed 03-09-2014).

(This entry was last revised on 12-27-2014.)

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Self-Portrait of an Egyptian Scribe with his Autograph Signature Circa 1,292 BCE – 1,069 BCE

A self-portrait of the scribe Sesh, arms raised in the presentation of a papyrus scroll and possibly a writing palette. Preserved in the Schoyen Collection as MS 1695. (View Larger)

A sketch in rust-red drawn on a limestone ostracon represents the self-portrait of the scribe, Sesh, wearing a knee-length kilt, his arms raised to present a papyrus roll and possibly a writing pallette. The sketch is signed with the hieroglyph of "scribe", consisting of a palette with wells for red and black ink, shoulder strap, water pot and reed pen. Measuring 11 x 12 cm, it was created in Deir-el-Medina, Western Thebes, 19th or 20th dynasty, and excavated there, circa 1975. It is preserved in the Schøyen Collection (MS 1695).

Deir-el-Medina was occupied by the community of workmen who constructed and decorated the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Many pieces, mostly dating from the 19th and 20th Dynasties were recovered from this site—mostly detailed drafts for specific details of a tomb's decoration.

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The Papyrus of Ani Circa 1,275 BCE – 1,250 BCE

Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of Ani.

The Papyrus of Ani was written in cursive hieroglyphs and illustrated with color miniatures in the 19th dynasty of the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt, c. 1275-1250 BCE, for the scribe Ani. It is among the most richly illustrated of all surviving copies of the Book of the Dead, which was also called the "Book of Going Forth by Day". The text usually contained declarations and spells to help the deceased in their afterlife.  

The papyrus excavated from the tomb of Ani in Thebes, and was purchased in 1888 by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge for the collection of the British Museum where it remains today. Before shipping the manuscript to England Budge cut the seventy-eight foot scroll into thirty-seven sheets of nearly equal size, damaging the scroll's integrity.  In 1890 the British Museum issued a large folio color facsimile of the thirty-seven sheets entitled The Book of the Dead: Facsimile of the Papyrus of Ani in the British Museum, with an introduction by Peter le Page Renouf. This was followed in 1895 by E. Wallis Budge's The Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Ani in the British Museum, the Egyptian Text, with interlinear transliteration and translation, a running translation, introduction etc. 

More recent scholarship is: The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day, The First Authentic Presentation of the Complete "Papyrus of Ani", Introduction and commentary by Dr. Ogden Goelet, Translation by Dr. Raymond O. Faulkner (1998).

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Analysis of Pollen Grains Proves that Drought Caused the Collapse of Civilization in the Soutern Levant 1,250 BCE – 1,100 BCE

In the October 2013 issue of Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University palynologist (pollen researcher) Dafna Langgut and archaeologist Israel Finkelstein published "Climate and the Late Bronze Collapse: New Evidence from the Southern Levant." Using cores drilled from the Dead Sea, the researchers were able to study pollen counts an intervals of 40 years--the highest resolution yet in the region. From this evidence they were able to demonstate that a devastating drought from 1250 to 1100 BCE caused the collapse of civilization in the Southern Levant during the Late Bronze Age.

"A core drilled from the Sea of Galilee was subjected to high resolution pollen analysis for the Bronze and Iron Ages. The detailed pollen diagram (sample/~40 yrs) was used to reconstruct past climate changes and human impact on the vegetation of the Mediterranean zone of the southern Levant. The chronological framework is based on radiocarbon dating of short-lived terrestrial organic material. The results indicate that the driest event throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages occurred ~1250–1100 BCE—at the end of the Late Bronze Age. This arid phase was identified based on a significant decrease in Mediterranean tree values, denoting a reduction in precipitation and the shrinkage of the Mediterranean forest/maquis. The Late Bronze dry event was followed by dramatic recovery in the Iron I, evident in the increased percentages of both Mediterranean trees and cultivated olive trees.

"Archaeology indicates that the crisis in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age took place during the same period—from the mid-13th century to ca. 1100 BCE. In the Levant the crisis years are represented by destruction of a large number of urban centres, shrinkage of other major sites, hoarding activities and changes in settlement patterns. Textual evidence from several places in the Ancient Near East attests to drought and famine starting in the mid-13th and continuing until the second half of the 12th century. All this helps to better understand the 'Crisis Years' in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age and the quick settlement recovery in the Iron I, especially in the highlands of the Levant" (http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/maney/tav/2013/00000040/00000002/art00002, accessed 10-22-2013). 

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The Only Ancient Egyptian Document that Mentions Israel 1,209 BCE – 1,208 BCE

The Merneptah Stele (View Larger)

In 1896 W. M. Flinders Petrie discovered the Merneptah Stele -- also known as the Israel Stele or Victory Stele of Merneptah -- in the first court of Merneptah's mortuary temple at Thebes. It is inscribed on the reverse of a large granite stele originally erected by the Ancient Egyptian king Amenhotep III, but later inscribed by Merneptah who ruled Egypt from 1213 to 1203 BC. The black granite stele primarily commemorates a victory in a campaign against the Libu and Meshwesh Libyans and their Sea People allies, but its final two lines refer to a prior military campaign in Canaan in which Merneptah states that he defeated Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam and Israel among others. It is preserved in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.

"The stele has gained much fame and notoriety for being the only Ancient Egyptian document generally accepted as mentioning "Isrir" or "Israel". It is also, by far, the earliest known attestation of Israel. For this reason, many scholars refer to it as the "Israel stele". This title is somewhat misleading, however, because the stele was clearly not focused on Israel per se— in fact, it mentions Israel only in passing. There is only a single line about Israel: "Israel is wasted, bare of seed" or "Israel lies waste, its seed no longer exists" and very little about the region of Canaan. Israel was simply grouped together with three other defeated states in Canaan (Gezer, Yanoam and Ashkelon) in the stele. Merneptah inserts just a single stanza to the Canaanite campaigns but multiple stanzas to his defeat of the Libyans. The line referring to Merneptah's Canaanite campaign reads:

Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, bare of seed
(Wikipedia article on the Merneptah Stele, accessed 11-29-2008).
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The Earliest Chinese Inscriptions that are Indisputably Writing Circa 1,200 BCE – 1,050 BCE


The oldest Chinese inscriptions that are indisputably writing are the Oracle bone script (Chinese: 甲骨文; pinyin: jiǎgǔwén; literally 'shell-bone-script') of the late thirteenth century BCE. It is not until the oracle-bone inscriptions that we find grammatically connected marks that certainly record language. Lack of archaeological evidence prevents addressing the related questions of how long before that time writing developed and in what contexts, or whether writing in China developed gradually or rapidly, and whether it developed exclusively in a religious context or, as in the ancient Middle East, it was tied to court adminstration.

Oracle bone script was

"first identified by scholars in 1899 on pieces of bone and turtle shell being sold as medicine, and by 1928, the source of the oracle bones had been traced back to modern Xiǎotún (小屯) village at Ānyáng in Hénán Province, where official archaeological excavations in 1928–1937 discovered 20,000 oracle bone pieces, about 1/5 of the total discovered. The inscriptions were records of the divinations performed for or by the royal Shāng household. The oracle bone script is a well-developed writing system, attested from the late Shang Dynasty (1200–1050 BC). Only about 1,400 of the 2,500 known oracle bone script logographs can be identified with later Chinese characters and thus deciphered by paleographers."

"The late Shāng oracle bone writings, along with a few contemporary characters in a different style cast in bronzes, constitute the earliest significant corpus of Chinese writing, which is essential for the study of Chinese etymology, as Shāng writing is directly ancestral to the modern Chinese script. It is also the oldest member and ancestor of the Chinese family of scripts.

"The oracle bone script of the late Shāng appears archaic and pictographic in flavor, as does its contemporary, the Shāng writing on bronzes. The earliest oracle bone script appears even more so than examples from late in the period (thus some evolution did occur over the roughly 200-year period). Comparing oracle bone script to both Shāng and early Western Zhōu period writing on bronzes, oracle bone script is clearly greatly simplified, and rounded forms are often converted to rectilinear ones; this is thought to be due to the difficulty of engraving the hard, bony surfaces, compared with the ease of writing them in the wet clay of the molds from which the bronzes were cast. The more detailed and more pictorial style of the bronze graphs is thus thought to be more representative of typical Shāng writing (as would have normally occurred on bamboo books) than the oracle bone script forms, and it is this typical style which continued to evolve into the Zhōu period writing and then into the seal script of the Qín state in the late Zhōu period.

"It is known that the Shāng people also wrote with brush and ink, as brush-written graphs have been found on a small number of pottery, shell and bone, and jade and other stone items, and there is evidence that they also wrote on bamboo (or wooden) books just like those which have been found from the late Zhōu to Hàn periods, because the graphs for a writing brush (聿 yù) and bamboo book (冊 cè, a book of thin vertical slats or slips with horizontal string binding, like a Venetian blind turned 90 degrees) are present in the oracle bone script. Since the ease of writing with a brush is even greater than that of writing with a stylus in wet clay, it is assumed that the style and structure of Shāng graphs on bamboo were similar to those on bronzes, and also that the majority of writing occurred with a brush on such books. Additional support for this notion includes the reorientation of some graphs, by turning them 90 degrees as if to better fit on tall, narrow slats; this style must have developed on bamboo or wood slat books and then carried over to the oracle bone script. Additionally, the writing of characters in vertical columns, from top to bottom, is for the most part carried over from the bamboo books to oracle bone inscriptions. In some instances lines are written horizontally so as to match the text to divinatory cracks, or columns of text rotate 90 degrees in mid stream, but these are exceptions to the normal pattern of writing, and inscriptions were never read bottom to top. The vertical columns of text in Chinese writing are traditionally ordered from right to left; this pattern is found on bronze inscriptions from the Shāng dynasty onward. Oracle bone inscriptions, however, are often arranged so that the columns begin near the centerline of the shell or bone, and move toward the edge, such that the two sides are ordered in mirror-image fashion" (Wikipedia article on Oracle bone script, accessed 07-11-2009).

Edward L. Shaughnessy, "The Beginnings of Writing in China" IN: Woods (ed) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Middle East and Beyond (2010) 215-24.

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Diseases of the Anus and Headaches 1,200 BCE

The Chester Beatty Medical Papyrus. (View Larger)

A fragment of a papyrus on diseases of the anus and magical incantations against headaches, The Chester Beatty Medical papyrus was written in the 13th-12th centuries BCE in hieratic script. It is preserved in the British Museum (Papyrus VI of the Chester Beatty Papyri 46; Papyrus no. 10686, British Museum.)

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Imperial Purple Was First Produced by the Phoenicians 1,200 BCE – 1453

Tyrian Purple.

Tyrian Purple, or royal purple, imperial purple or imperial dye — a purple-red dye made from the mucus of one of several species of Murex snail — was first produced by the Phoenicians in the city of Tyre (now Lebanon) for use as a fabric dye around 1200 BCE. The pigment was expensive and complex to produce, and items colored with it became associated with power and wealth. The Greek historian Theopompus, writing in the 4th century BCE, reported that "purple for dyes fetched its weight in silver at Colophon [in Asia Minor]." It's production was continued by the Greeks and Romans until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. 

"The name Phoenicians, like Latin Poenī (adj. poenicus, later pūnicus), comes from Greek Φοίνικες (Phoínikes), attested since Homer and influenced by phoînix "Tyrian purple, crimson; murex" (itself from phoinós "blood red"). The word stems from Mycenaean po-ni-ki-jopo-ni-ki, ultimately borrowed from Ancient Egyptian fnḥw (fenkhu) "Asiatics, Semites". The folk-etymological association of phoiniki with phoînix mirrors that in Akkadian which tiedkinaḫnikinaḫḫi "Canaan; Phoenicia" to kinaḫḫu "red-dyed wool". The land was natively known as knʿn (cf. Eblaite ca-na-na-umca-na-na), remembered in the 6th century BC by Hecataeus under the Greek form Chna(χνα), and its people as the knʿny (cf. Punic chananiHebrew kanaʿani)" (Wikipedia article Phoenicia, accessed 03-20-2014).


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The Earliest Chinese Inscriptions in Bronze Circa 1,200 BCE – 1,045 BCE

A bronze guang, or ritualistic wine vessel, of the Shang dynasty. (View Larger)

The earliest Chinese inscriptions in bronze date from the late Shang period (c. 1200-1045 BCE), the same period in which the oracle bone inscriptions were produced.

"Discovered at Anyang in Henan province and at sites in the central Yangzi region, Shang bronze objects belonged to members of the royal family and the political elite. Under Zhou rule (104-221 BC) this social level of ownership continued and even widened. In existence today are probably over ten thousand inscribed vessels, weapons, bells and other bronze objects made before the Qin unification of 221 BC.

"Inscriptions on most weapons are prominent and easily visible. By contrast, inscriptions on vessels of the Shang, and the following Western Zhou period (1045-770 BC) were usually placed on the vessels' interior surfaces, where they are much less clearly seen. . . .

"Precise practices at different bronze foundries varied, but nearly all inscriptions were prepared on a clay mould and cast from this on to the metal surface of an object. Most inscriptions are countersunk and positive. That is, characters do not rise above the surrounding metal surface, and the text is not a form of mirror-writing (a negative inscription). Inscriptions in relief were occasionally cast, but they became widespread only in association with ironwork in a much later period. Negative inscriptions are extremely rare. Texts were usually arranged in columns reading from right to left.

"In order to obtain a positive inscription the surface of the mould had to be prepared with the text in a negative form. To do this, the text was written with a stylus on the surface of wet clay. When hardened, this positive version could be pressed into a new supply of wet clay to provide a negative relief. Next, the hardened clay of the second version in negative could be trimmed and fitted as a block into an excavation on the mould core of the whole vessel. The mould and this fitting were then ready to receive the molten metal, which would re-form the inscription back into positive appearance. This method comprises the fewest transfer operations needed to cast a countersunk, positive inscription and allows for the text to be written out freehand in the same form that it will assume in metal.

"Bronze inscriptions are thus preservations of calligraphy in the medium of clay. Writing in wet clay offered a wide range of possibilities for variation and liveliness, and even quite early inscriptions show a concern for style" (Oliver Moore, Chinese [2000] 33, 36).

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The Longest Known Egyptian Papyrus Circa 1,186 BCE – 1,155 BCE

A papyrus of the 'Discourse of the Gods' section of the Great Harris Papyrus, showing Ramesses III before the Triad of Thebes. (View Larger)

Papyrus Harris I, also known as the Great Harris Papyrus, and officially designated as Papyrus British Museum 9999, extends to a length of 41 meters. It is the longest papyrus ever found in Egypt, and includes 1500 lines of text.

The Great Harris Papyrus was found in a tomb near Medinet Habu, across the Nile river from Luxor, Egypt. It was purchased by collector and merchant Anthony Charles Harris in 1855.  The hieratic text of the papyrus consists of a list of temple endowments and a brief summary of the entire reign of king Ramesses III, second Pharaoh of the Twentieth dynasty.

The papyrus entered the collection of the British Museum in 1872.

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